Show me the money: the final word on science funding

There’s a bit of a stir at the moment with regards to cuts in science funding. Of course, those with a vested professional interest will want more money, and some with no interest in science will see it as a publicly funded gravy train. Sensible policy lies somewhere inbetween.

I don’t see much point in trying to convince people who take an aggressive anti-science funding stance. They are probably the same people who divert any online comment thread towards a comparison with Hitler’s Germany. As long as they aren’t making the decisions, they can hold whatever views they like.

The issue of funding ties in with the supposed debate about whether science should be publicly subsidised if it has no immediately obvious economic benefit. In defence of the economic value of speculative science, there have been two main trump cards; the invention of the laser and the internet, neither of which needs any hyperbole in terms of economic impact.

On the other hand, two data points do not make a trend. Of course there are other examples, but are lasers and the internet truly representative? A huge amount of pure science research will never find a financially viable application for the simple reason that it’s not what academic scientists are generally motivated or trying to do. As pointed out by Philip Moriarty in this article from 2008, if scientists want to carry out research for industry, that’s where they’ll be.

Efforts to encourage publicly funded scientists to engage more closely with business through jointly funded research initiatives between the public and private sector are fine, but shift the balance in research from the interesting to the profitable.

There is also a question as to how successful these initiatives actually are. A report from the Centre for Business Research at the University of Cambridge, Exploding the Myths of UK Innovation Policy (summarized by Roger Highfield on the New Scientist’s  S Word blog.) On the idea that “university research is the key source of technology and innovation”, the report doesn’t mince its words:

“University IP does have a role to play, but its effect on
local and national economic development is modest in
the short to medium term. The over-glamorised notion
of the university boffin as the prime source of inventions
that can rebuild the UK’s scientific industrial base is
seriously misleading. Instead, we must ensure that
greater attention is paid to helping all entrepreneurial
start-ups, especially spin-outs from research intensive
companies.”

I’m not going to argue, because I think it’s wrong to measure the value of science in terms of pure, immediate and measurable financial gain and agree with the report that it’s better for specialised startups, rather than universities, to carry out R+D under contract to larger tech companies.

Aside from the broader, non-fiscal value of science to society, what people don’t see is the deal academics make when they come into the job. In return for the freedom and funding to pursue their own research, the very best scientists, working at the cutting edge, teach what they know. Science is not just knowledge- or intellectual property- but a way of thinking which should be nurtured in every generation. It’s not necessarily something you can measure in terms of immediate economic benefit, unless you asses the economic contribution of science graduates as a proportion of society as a whole.

Science in the UK has a fantastic reputation, but it’s built on a legacy from the last 350 years. It’s blindingly obvious that the biggest discoveries are unexpected, so if you only fund research with known outcomes then you take the UK out of the top level of the game. Government has to take a long term view and invest to keep science out of the pocket of big business, to maintain this incredible resource indefinitely.

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10 Comments on “Show me the money: the final word on science funding”


  1. James, I agree, but it always seems to be polarised in an either or scenario. I don’t see anyone suggesting that 100% of funding should be blue sky, or that 100% should be directed to economic goals. But the various sides act like it is a zero sum game, which it isn’t.

    However, I also feel that there are plenty of pointless science projects which don’t particularly deserve funding when as a country we are trying to cut costs as deeply as we need to. Similarly there are pointless business projects, nhs funded areas, arts projects, public infrastructure projects etc etc and don’t see why science and scientists should be exempt from weeding out the dead wood waste of money projects when real frontline services helping people now are not. The trick is finding out which ones those are. Similarly with all the other major areas facing cuts, everyone should have to make savings and efficiencies, sadly because of the mess we got ourselves in, it’s just where to cut which is the problem.

    • James Hayton Says:

      As I said in my opening paragraph, of course scientists have a vested interest and nobody wants to lose out when cuts are made. You’re right that it isn’t a zero sum game, but it’s a question of where the emphasis is shifted. Arguing the case for science funding is, I think, subtly different from saying it should be exempt from cuts.

      It is increasingly rare for projects to be funded purely on a scientific merit, and even before the financial crisis this was the case. Academia should have two main roles, to seek knowledge and to educate. However both are being driven into the private sector, students becoming customers and science becoming R+D.


  2. James,

    An excellent post, as usual. As you might imagine, I’m entirely in agreement with the general thrust of the piece. Thank you for the link to the article in The Independent . A rather more “nuanced” version of the arguments in that article was published in Nature Nanotech in 2008. A free version is available here . (Presuming that I didn’t screw up the HTML link again. If I did, the URL is http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ppzstm/papers/NATNANO360.pdf).

    Responding to Hilary’s comments above:: Yes, there is no reason why science funding, and more generally, the HE sector should be exempt from cuts. But to whom does the “we” in the final sentence of your comment refer? (“…sadly because of the mess we got ourselves in…”). The mess we are in stems directly from the New Labour government’s over-confidence in unfettered free market economics. (Wasn’t it Mandelson who stated back in 2003 that “we’re all Thatcherite now”…?). It sticks in the craw that huge public sector cuts will be necessary to address major failings of the private sector and of weak regulation.

    As the final line of James’ post points out, Government has to take a long term view and invest to keep science out of the pocket of big business, to maintain this incredible resource indefinitely. . Instead, and in spite of all econometric evidence to the contrary, the government and research councils are keen to inculcate a “culture change” in academia, to ensure that the university sector becomes more entrepreneurial and industry-led. I’m an academic scientist. I have zero interest in entrepreneurship. The majority of my colleagues similarly did not become academics to hone their entrepreneurial skills.

    I’ll cut this already over-long comment short by recommending two key books which point out the dangers arising from aggressive commercialisation of academic research: “University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education”, Jennifer Washburn, and “Science for Sale”, Daniel S. Greenberg. It’s also worth Googling “Aubrey Blumsohn, Sheffield” for a shocking UK example of distortion of academic results by a multinational corporation.


    • Thanks Philip, I think you are right about the mess, though can’t see any political party doing any better on that one, certainly not the Conservatives over the last 10 years. The entire world was/is in thrall to the market model and many are much more in thrall to it than the UK which will in itself have repercussions for funding and the economy. I am sure the books you recommend are correct and provide us with serious concerns.

      However, I think there is a big misunderstanding here about what the Research Councils are trying to do. No-one is suggesting you do anything other than be an academic scientists as far as I can see from talking to them and reading the information. What they are suggesting is to try to consider the impact of research early enough in the process to do something about it.

      A book to read also is Robert Winston’s Bad Ideas. Whether we like it or not, even academic science has an impact and there is more and more concern about ‘the dangers human societies may face from our inventiveness’ to quote Winston. I think it worth trying to think of the very best ways of avoiding causing more problems than we solve with new technologies. If that means you have to think differently about your work and its impact then maybe that is reasonable?


      • Hi, Hilary.

        I agree, the entire world was indeed in thrall to free market economics. I would have liked, however, if New Labour – which at least initially should have had some vestige of a left-leaning sensibility – had been rather less enamoured of the type of economics espoused by Friedman, Thatcher, Reagan et al. Naive, I know.

        The research and funding councils claim repeatedly that they have been misunderstood with regard to the question of impact. (For example, David Sweeney of HEFCE has claimed that the 17,000 or so academics who signed the UCU petition re. impact have simply misunderstood HEFCE’s plans. This is a frsutratingly patronising response). It’s important not to take RCUK/HEFCE statements at face value and to read between the lines (or see beyond the sophistry). The inclusion of impact criteria in peer review/research assessment is fundamentally motivated by a series of government reports/briefing documents (e.g. Warry report, Leitch review, Next Steps science and innovation framework) published since 2004. The research councils, in order to secure as much funding as possible for academic research in each CSR (an entirely laudable goal in principle), have modified their funding and peer review procedures to ensure alignment with Treasury expectations regarding return on investment.

        As regards “no-one is suggesting that you do anything other than be an academic”, I entirely disagree. The RCUK impact champion (David Delpy, also CEO of EPSRC) has stated publicly that RCUK wants to see a “culture change” in academia . Similarly, it’s worth reading the guidance for applicants for EPSRC/STFC grants on the matter of the impact statement. The first thing EPSRC suggests applicants consider is “Are there any beneficiaries
        within the commercial private sector?’ Will the proposed research foster “global
        economic performance, and specifically the economic
        competitiveness of the UK?”.

        Yes, EPSRC also asks applicants to consider the potential societal impacts of their work. But ask yourself the following question. Which is easier to *quantify*?: The number of patents/spin-offs/licensing income generated by an academic group working on close-to-market research on, say, photovolatics, or the impact of a group working on fundamental research into the nature of quantum mechanics?

        Of course scientists must be concerned about the ethical implications of their work. We are publicly funded and have a duty to do this. Moreover, we should consider, where possible, how we can make our work accessible to the taxpayers that fund it. I, like many of my colleagues in Nottingham, am passionate about public engagement/outreach. But I’m a taxpayer and I want my taxes to go to support academic research that is as free as possible of commercial drivers. Regardless of RCUK/HEFCE protestations to the contrary, the introduction of impact criteria has little to do with accountability to the taxpayer and everything to do with demonstrating alignment with government policy on the matter of business/private sector-led academia.

        I no longer review nor submit EPSRC proposals because of the impact statement requirement. I feel that strongly about it. New Labour has done a great amount of damage to primary and secondary education in the UK due to its flawed commitment to using free market principles to provide public goods. Its imposition of impact criteria in peer review – for precisely the same market-led reasons – will do similar damage to higher education and university research.

        Sorry for such a long comment/tirade. One of my new year’s resolutions was to stop “tilting at windmills” re. impact and get back to the lab. to do something rather more productive. Up until our exchange I’d managed to stick to this resolution!

        Best wishes,

        Philip


  3. Apologies. I screwed up some of the HTML tags in the preceding comment. Rather more of the comment than I intended is italicised.

    Philip


  4. No Philip, on the contrary, it sounds like you should get out of the lab more, the debate really needs well articulated informed perspectives! I take your point on the RC debates, it is not an area of expertise, my new year’s res is not to wade in to debates I don’t know enough about!

    I suppose the main thing for me, is what would you do instead, given the situation we are in, the money we don’t have, the choices that any government will have to make. It is not as easy as the sci’s make out.

    I am reacting to cries for special dispensation for science not supported by sensible rationale, sounds just like self-serving behaviour when articulated like that. Phil Willis just asked the question on twitter – how do we persuade the public science is special without sounding self-serving. Get the stats, as in the Royal Soc report today, articulate better why it isn’t and don’t be surprised if it looks like it is to the man in the street – when you’re unemployed and can’t pay the rent, science doesn’t look that important.

    Keep up all the good work!!


    • Hilary,

      Thanks for the very kind words – they’re really appreciated. I entirely agree that scientists can’t simply plead for “special measures” and that we need to put forward cogent arguments as to the cultural and socioeconomic importance of fundamental research. However, and this is the most dispiriting thing, the best arguments in the world – backed up with watertight statistics – may simply pale against the political ideology du jour .

      For example, there are very many studies – by leading economists, social scientists, and science historians – which clearly describe not only the importance and societal value of curiosity-driven research but point out the difficulties inherent in trying to quantify its impact. Most galling of all is that the Treasury commissioned a study back in 2000 that stated (amongst many other pearls of wisdom) that “… it is almost impossible to measure the extent to which a sector … gains economic benefits from the publicly-funded research infrastructure… And yet, ten years later, that’s exactly what HEFCE/RCUK/BIS is trying to do. …sigh…

      For a more topical example, consider the government’s response to last year’s Cambridge review of primary education . This was an authoritative and carefully constructed report which provided clear guidance to New Labour on the failings of primary education. The government response? Roughly, No, this won’t do at all. We don’t like it. Make it go away.…putting fingers in ears… Not listening. Not listening.

      You ask what would I do instead re. funding policy? I’m not going to get into that here – I’ve already submitted far too many words on James’ blog! – but I did outline some suggestions in an article last year in Physics World . Leslie Ann Goldberg, a computer scientist at the University of Liverpool, also maintains a website which links to many articles focussed on the dangers of assessing research via direct (socio)economic impact. Amongst very many excellent articles on Leslie’s website, it’s well worth reading the wise words of John Pethica, Chief Scientist at NPL and vice-president of the Royal Society, on funding mechanisms (in an article entitled Science: Exploration and Exploitation /.

      All the best,

      Philip


  5. All too tricky, glad they aren’t my funding decisions to have to make!

    Thanks re good reading stuff. Tho after this week I need more reading like a hole in the head!

    There appeared to be helpful words said at the Sci Debate last night with the three potential sci ministers.

    We live in hope!


  6. [...] name but two) regularly cover science and nanotech  policy , so although I’ll occasionally dust off my soapbox, it’s not a theme that I want to focus on. Also, frankly, a lot of the reports coming out [...]


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