Nursing Some Thoughts about Science Funding

Last week Sir Paul Nurse was proposed as the candidate to be the next president of the Royal Society of London. His first act was to be interviewed in the Times, and to alienate the majority of scientists


His big idea is this:

In an interview with The Times, [Nurse] said that funders should identify 100 to 150 excellent scientists in all fields, who would get generous long-term support to pursue their interests.

There is some merit in this idea, but it could be done without dismissing everyone else:

It is an interesting paradox, because we have quite a lot of people in the scientific endeavour, but not so many of them are people who are moving things significantly forward. Much of the work is worthybut [sic] the question is, do we have enough at that top end who make real discoveries? Are we attracting enough people there, and are we resourcing them enough?

Aaaagh! That was politically inept. In order to become president, he needs to be elected by the FRS’s. according to the Royal Society’s webpages

On the 31 March 2010, there were 1327 Fellows and 136 Foreign Members of the Royal Society.

So is he saying that most of the people who will vote for him are not “moving things significantly forward”?
Aside from the political stupidity, the argument doesn’t make much sense. It’s not really clear what Sir Paul Nurse means by “moving things significantly forward”. I assume he wants to see us making Big Steps, announcing cures for cancer or the discovery of an amazing new missing link. But I can see two problems (and feel free to add more in the comments).
First, Big Steps are rare in science. This may be because only a few people are capable of taking them, but it could also be because that’s not the way to learn about the world. There are a lot of details out there that need investigating. Just to give one example, my student (who defends next month, yay!) wrote a paper about where best to model environmental noise when analysing ecological time series. It’s not a big leap forward, but I think it’s a worthwhile question, and it’s one that might help other researchers: it may be that there will be a Big Step based on the analysis of ecological time series, and this paper will help. A lot of science is like this: it adds a little bit to the overall picture.
The second problem is that for Nurse’s idea to work, we have to be able to identify the people who will make those Big Leaps. My worry is not that some of the 150 Worthies may not make advances, but rather than there will be people outside the 150 who could make advances if given the support. One does wonder how much support will be taken away from them, and also how seriously someone from outside the 150 would be taken. Would being a second class scientist mean that one wouldn’t get the same respect? Fewer commentaries in Nature, or requests for interview? I can see the potential for lots of infighting and envy, but without the guarantee that the Glorious 150 would be producing much better science than under the current system.
I think there is a lot more that could be written about this idea. It may not be totally nuts, but it would have to be fleshed out a lot, preferably without insulting 99% of scientists.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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21 Responses to Nursing Some Thoughts about Science Funding

  1. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Very interesting, Bob – thanks for flagging this up. I’m assuming he’s talking about the UK only. For the sake of argument, I’m curious what the actual number of well-funded scientists, per field, is in the UK right now under the current regime. How do you define a “field”, for starters? If it’s narrow (“morphogenesis of bristle development in Drosophila”), there might already be fields where fewer than a hundred major labs are funded. But if you’re talking about, say, “molecular mechanisms of cancer”, there are going to be thousands. Until he defines his terms, it’s all a bit nonsensical.
    Also, I think from his lofty perspective as a Nobel laureate, it might be harder to put himself in the shoes of a young wanna-be who has yet to Move Anything Forward. If he wants to restrict numbers in large fields, it does rather feel like scrambling up on the boat and pulling up the rope ladder after you.

  2. Benoit Bruneau says:

    While in principle it makes sense to put money where the success is, in science one never knows where the “breakthrough” is going to come from. Is it the person with one major discovery on which he/she coasts with lecture invitations and awards but never really makes another discovery of that magnitude? Or is it the one with steady career of solid field-specific discoveries? Or is it the rare individual who publishes in Cell every 2 months? Or the complete unknown struggling to do something nobody has ever done? So yes, some people are clearly successful and deserve to be supported to continue, but to put it in those terms…. not so sure that’s the wisest thing to say or do.

  3. Richard Wintle says:

    Let’s travel back in time, to an age before there were microRNAs (ok, to before scientists appreciated the importance of microRNAs, or had discovered them in any numbers). Or to before the discovery of prions. Or any number of other game-changing “real discoveries”.
    Now, Sir Paul – how do you propose to predict from whom these discoveries will come? Remember, neither you nor anyone else can even imagine them.
    Also – can anyone out there identify at least one “big thinker” who contributed greatly to scientific discovery at one point in there career, then did nothing else of note afterwards? I bet you can. How about a young unknown who rocks the scientific world? Hm.
    This kind of thinking reminds me of the famous, but unfortunately incorrect, quotation “Everything that can be invented has been invented” (attributed falsely to Charles Duell, US Patent Office Commissioner).

  4. Richard Wintle says:

    ARGH “their”. Argh.

  5. Richard P. Grant says:

    You know, guaranteeing funding for a smaller number of labs (pretty much what Jenny suggested when it comes to postdoc positions, actually) does make a sort of sense, especially from the point of view of young wannabes. They (will have to) go to these securely, generously-funded labs for their first postdoc; presumably if they’re going to succeed anywhere they’d do it there?
    Hmm.

  6. Richard Wintle says:

    Um, yes, but what will they do once they finish their postdoc?

  7. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I don’t think ‘guaranteeing funding for a smaller number of labs” will help wanna-be’s if the number used to be 10,000 and now it’s 100. He’s talking about a serious cull, is he not? Unless what he means by ‘field’ isn’t what I mean, which is possible.

  8. Richard P. Grant says:

    Richard, once they’ve finished, if they have had a needle-swinger they’ll get their own money, presumably.
    Jenny, it wasn’t clear to me whether he meant 100-150 per ‘field’ or overall.

  9. Cath Ennis says:

    Perhaps those people like Nurse who DO take the big steps are just too out of touch with the reality of science as it is practiced by the majority of labs.
    The constant competition for research funding is a major time and energy suck, and the main reason I’d decided to eventually leave research before I’d even finished my PhD. It’s obviously an imperfect system with much room for improvement in terms of efficiency and fairness, BUT it does keep people on their toes, and means that the “big thinkers” that Richard W and Benoit talked about don’t get to rest on their laurels after making one big breakthrough.

  10. Stephen Curry says:

    I suspect it’s a bit early to be dissecting exactly what Paul Nurse said or intends. There was some discussion of this on Twitter on Saturday morning with Mark Henderson who did the interview. There was some suggestion that Nurse has a HHMI model in mind. Mark H was going to blog about it and provide some further information but I’ve not seen anything yet. May have dropped off his to do list by now.

  11. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Oh, it’s never too early for a bit of dissection, surely? I’m quite enjoying this thread.

  12. Austin Elliott says:

    I said I might write something about it, Stephen.
    I agree that we don’t exactly know what Nurse was proposing. In some ways it sounds like what the Wellcome have already said they are going to do with their funding, and the HHMI are another model that might be relevant.
    The problem, of course, with any set-up that funnels more money to a privileged “elite” group is that there will inevitably be even less in the pot that the rest of us are fighting like dogs over.

  13. Maxine Clarke says:

    I wasn’t too impressed by what you have headlined the “big idea”. It’s simplistic, and I think this kind of statement is typical of what gives science/scientists an “elitist” label.
    Maybe memories are short, but when I was in science, in less stringent times, there were so many people who had once been promising (published one good paper), and had been given tenure, then spent all their time in the piano tuning shop.
    I just think there are no easy answers, no slogans, and no soundbites. I am only relieved that he said this before he was created PRS. I hope he will now refine his view a bit.

  14. Bob O'Hara says:

    I’m just enjoying getting comments. :-)
    I assumed that the 150 was across all science, not per subject. If I get time, I’ll blog about the Finnish system. One advantage of giving people money is that they don’t have to write grant applications all the time. The Academy of Finland has Centres of Excellence, which don’t get that much more money from the Academy than they would, but are barred from applying for the regular funding. the advantage is that the money is secure and doesn’t need to be re-applied for. Plus getting other funding is easier.

  15. Austin Elliott says:

    Maxine’s scenario, which I am old enough to remember, is the reason why funding was shifted away from Univs in the UK from the mid 80s on and pumped through the response-mode grant system; spreading the money the old way via Univs was seen to have “feather-bedded mediocrity” etc etc.
    I have to say that I think over the last decade things have gone too far the other way – so that now we have really good scientists, with talents honed through 5-10 postdoc yrs, who are spending their entire time chasing grants in a set-up with a 10% success rate.

  16. Richard P. Grant says:

    I assumed that
    and therein lies the problem with commenting on stories in the tabloid press.
    (yes, the Times went tabloid a long time ago)

  17. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks to Mark Henderson at The Times, there is now a fuller account of his interview with Sir Paul Nurse.
    This confirms that he is thinking about a HHMI-type set-up. However, he does at least concede that he’s not sure how to manage the disconnect, defined thus:

    “So we have a kind of disconnect here: individual scientists are usually driven by curiosity and a wish to understand the world better, but our political masters and our scientific leaders are trying to direct science to research that will lead to better outcomes in various fields.”

    Still digesting, but food for thought there.

  18. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks for that, Stephen. It still begs the question of whether or not non-curiosity-driven research gets fewer practical results for society than does the old-fashioned variety – I do question that basic assumption. I wonder if there are any stats? Though it would be hard to measure both the input and the output.

  19. Brian Derby says:

    I think Paul Nurse’s opinions are interesting but as with all such schemes, the devil is in the detail. Funding would tend to gravitate to the “usual suspects” and there would be a rapid tendency to form a self-referential grouping that reviewed and judged itself. It almost sounds as if Nurse envisions a House of Lords approach where you fund some people/groups for life without review and the possibility of removal if you made the wrong call. I think a better solutiuon is to have a diverse range of vehicles with some longer term funding.
    The real difficulty I see with the fund the stars policy is that funds for junior staff will become harder to achieve and only those fed off crumbs from the fat cats table will end up making it to the next rung.

  20. Tom Webb says:

    Interesting… As someone who is lucky enough to be Royal Society funded, I can confirm that it’s great if you make it through the various sieves (weighted, I reckon, about 80:20 in favour of luck over ability) and secure reasonably long-term, individual funding.
    Likewise, a significant number of top UK scientists (at least in ecology) have at some stage received this kind of funding, which one could naively use to suggest they are successful at identifying ‘talent’. Of course, cause and effect are confounded – presumably, randomly assigning 5-10 years funding and support to post-doctoral scientists would achieve a pretty high hit rate too! But there’s no doubt that personal support enables a different, perhaps more creative approach to research than the constant chasing after responsive mode funding.
    So, while I (not entirely impartially!) think fellowship schemes are an essential part of science funding, there have got to be other ways to forge a career, to account for those who develop late, have the misfortune to apply for personal funding in a particularly strong year, or who just do the kind of incremental work that supports some of the big leaps.

  21. Avi Wener says:

    Considering the poor state of funding in the UK I am glad to be located in the US. The recent stimulus package announced by Washington seems to have helped basic science funding in the US. While we don’t know what impact it will have in the long term, it is sure good to have while it lasts. See funding for basic science research for more reading on the subject.