How often have I heard it said that ‘the policies are good but the implementation is shaky’? I could make that comment about many of the issues around women in science, where the best-intentioned policies are defeated by negativity, implicit stereotyping and just plain old habits dying hard and not being challenged in some remote parts of an organisation, whatever the top brass may believe. However, in this post I will leave the diversity theme alone and return to the topic of a relatively recent post, that of interdisciplinary work, where I believe the same statement about the mismatch between policies and implementation may sometimes apply.
Previously I wrote about the challenges facing those researchers whose area of activity cannot neatly be pigeonholed into mainstream areas or whose work spans more than one Research Council’s activities. The post was prompted by a meeting both myself and Doug Kell, Chief Executive of the BBSRC, had attended – Physics Meets Biology. Both of us had come away from the meeting enthused and encouraged by the exciting research being carried out in many places within the UK. However, I retain a long held worry that such interdisciplinary research fares badly under the current grant-awarding system where I suspect there is an overwhelming tendency of ‘regression towards the mean’. In other words, I believe truly innovative and adventurous research that doesn’t tick standard boxes can fall by the wayside.
My experiences with both the BBSRC and the EPSRC over many years have fuelled this anxiety. The situation can only be made worse by the current funding climate, where money is exceedingly tight; it is perhaps unsurprising if, in these circumstances, panels tend to play safe and the more adventurous/less mainstream/ less easily pigeon-holed applications are systematically if unconsciously disadvantaged. (Yes, alert readers of my blog will spot that here is a very different version of unconscious bias than the one I usually write about!)
Doug attempted to refute what I said on his own blog. He highlighted what the BBSRC policies are around interdisciplinary work, and also on his blog discussed the (un)importance of hypotheses, an issue I highlighted in my earlier post as causing particular problems for scientists like me when applying to BBSRC. Although, like him, I do not think the blogosphere is a very good medium for this debate, I would like to think that our exchanges could prompt much deeper thought within the Research Councils and the wider community. So, I will take the liberty of analysing his refutation. It should be recognized that this is not meant to be read as an issue specific to BBSRC (whom I am sure are no worse, if not any better than any other Research Council), let alone directed at Doug Kell personally.
The basis of my concern is that, whereas Doug may be absolutely correct in what he claims is his Council’s policy, there can be – and I believe indeed is – a gulf between excellent policies and the actual implementation. We all know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and I would contend that, whatever the good intentions and stated objectives of BBSRC (and probably EPSRC too, although they haven’t entered this debate, at least as yet here), their implementation is not monitored to see where these good intentions have actually led. This is a common problem for large organisations with complex structures and many layers where decision-making may occur. I have no reason to believe the BBSRC is any different from any other organisation in this regard, but if – as BBSRC and EPSRC explicitly state – they are both truly committed to funding interdisciplinary work, they should check whether their well-intentioned policies really are delivering what they want or whether somewhere along the route systemic problems arise.
First of all there is the question of which Research Council to send a proposal to when it straddles the seams. Doug says that if researchers are worried where their proposal might sit they should discuss it with staff. I cannot tell you how fed up I am with this answer, because I have heard it repeatedly and it completely misses the point. The remit query (set up on the Council’s website), and conversations with helpful staff in Swindon, assume that a grant can be written so it fits readily within one Research Council’s ambit or another. I am not interested in how the funding is carved up and I am well aware two or more Research Councils may co-fund a grant in some proportion or another. I am interested in whether the application that describes the best science an applicant can write up will be judged fairly by committees. I have been in the position where my grant has been rejected by (in this case) EPSRC because there was too much biology in it, but there was no way it could find favour with BBSRC (who were prepared to accept it) because the biology was necessarily of the Noddy kind which would allow the physics to be teased out on a model system before there could be any possibility of tackling the real biology.
We are always told by those kind Swindon folk, to write the best science we can. Then we are told it isn’t acceptable to one Council and it is very obvious it will be bound to fail at the other. When this happened to me, and I was told I had to withdraw my EPSRC application and submit it to BBSRC, I was well placed to judge just how well the grant would fare at BBSRC, because I was chairing the relevant committee at the time! The ‘best’ science may well have a lot of rather simple biology in order to progress an approach before it can be used on serious biology; in order to achieve this the physics needed may equally appear to a hardcore physicist to be Noddy. The synergy is what makes it interesting and worth doing. Being forced to find a home in one Research Council or another will merely destroy that synergy. I assume these same arguments apply at all the junctions between Research Councils. It would be good to see comments from people who recognize the problem at any of these joins; I saw a smattering on Twitter after my last post on this topic.
Let me now turn to the vexed question of hypotheses. Of course Doug will know how the referee form reads and he tells me the current wording is ‘If the work is proposing or testing hypotheses….’, but I wonder when he last sat through a grant-awarding panel or read a batch of referee reports.
How about this as a response from one referee to my non-hypothesis led proposal to BBSRC from a couple of years back.
But as hypothesis‐based research, this proposal is rather weak and unfocussed. In fact, the word “hypothesis” never appears in the Case for Support. Moreover, the implicit hypotheses are not compelling. The proposal has the flavour of a “fishing expedition”, in which the investigators intend to play around to see what their technologies can deliver.
This referee then proceeded to try and invent some hypotheses (s)he then shot down. What a way to proceed! Even if a committee and its chair try to ignore such stupid refereeing, the damage is done. When stacked up against other proposals which have only positive referees’ reports of course it will be subtly marked down. It doesn’t matter that the proposal was not intended to be hypothesis-driven, nor that the BBSRC senior management doesn’t want grants to be judged this way, what I refer to as the tribal nature of the community defeats the good intentions that the policies may intend. So what is the answer? I am afraid that just being told that of course it isn’t necessary to include hypotheses simply doesn’t solve anything.
That is why I would urge the Research Councils to look again, not at what they say they do, but how their policies actually work in practice. To be told that the Chief Executive had no trouble getting funding for interdisciplinary when he was an active researcher also isn’t reassuring; once upon a time I didn’t have issues either, but those days are past. I think the difficulties for interdisciplinary work are now acute and only those areas (eg EPSRC’s Technologies for Healthcare) where a major, genuinely interdisciplinary programme is formally constructed with money explicitly allocated to it, is success likely. For those of us who work in more marginal or ill-defined areas which cross boundaries, but not as part of a pre-determined priority, life is an endless frustrating struggle, with success having little to do with excellence.
So I say again, maybe it is time for those of us who do not fit squarely into any box to stand up and be (even more) vociferous. Not to use special pleading for our field to be particularly protected, but to call for practices to be as fair to us who work at the margins of any given discipline and who cross boundaries, as for those who sit squarely in the middle of some well-established subject. I would urge the research councils to look at, not their policies, but what actually happens in practice so that they can give me the evidence that interdisciplinary work is genuinely not being disadvantaged by current structures. It is of course possible my experiences are not aligned with other people’s, but nothing that has been said to me by colleagues makes me think that is so. Again, comments on this blog – one way or the other – might help to beef up the evidence. The plural of anecdote is not data, but a multiplicity of examples could help.