I have a guest blog over at the Times Online today (May 6th):
A response to Sir Paul Nurse: it’s not only the elite who are feeling the strain
Note: May 17th – I’ve now posted the whole thing here (with minor updates) in case it got rather lost amid the Election Day fever. And in the hope it will encourage a few more readers, and particular commenters
Sir Paul Nurse’s remarks about science funding, widely reported a couple of weeks ago just after the announcement that he was likely to become the next President of the Royal Society, ruffled a few feathers amid the rank and file of UK science. Nurse was describing his view that a scheme for “no strings” funding of a small number of elite scientists, modelled on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US, would be a good idea.
Several critiques of Nurse’s remarks have appeared in the science blogosphere (e.g. by Bob O’Hara at Nature Network, or here, or by Sylvia McClain here). Some have pointed out that elite scientists are actually already likely to be among the best-funded in the country. Others, in similar vein, have noted that a variety of schemes offering longer-term, and sometimes renewable, research funding already exist (see, for instance, the Wellcome Trust’s switch to “Investigator Awards” for staff in established posts). In many comments is an undercurrent that any funding for such schemes would necessarily reduce the “response mode funding pool” – the pot of money which funds most scientific research in the UK, and which scientists compete for by writing grant applications for specific projects, usually of 3 years duration.
However, the misgivings evoked by Nurse’s remarks also reflect, I think, a deeper underlying worry among UK scientists. This is that his thoughts are directed at something which most of us think is a side issue. In the minds of most scientists in UK universities that I know, the key problem facing UK science is the unsustainability of a system where almost all scientists are required to spend more and more time filling in grant application forms, and less and less time doing science.
I have been working in UK science for a quarter of a century, give or take. Over that period the fraction of scientists’ time that goes on chasing funding – writing research grants – has increased inexorably. The other thing that has changed is the ability to do research in universities if you do not have a sizeable research grant; this has vastly decreased to the point of being close to none. Funding that comes directly through Universities nowadays underpins academics’ salaries and some infrastructure only, with little or nothing to meet the direct costs of doing research.
This second change also goes some way to explaining the first change, since without a research grant these days a scientist in many disciplines is basically dead in the water. They will have no lab technician to support their work – nowadays technicians only come with successful grants. They will also be less likely to have a PhD student; many departments prefer to send students to labs with grants, on the unsurprising grounds that without any grant funds the lab will struggle to support the cost of the student’s experimental work. Other PhD students are funded off -you guessed it -grants.
In football and in science, relegation is too often a one-way street
Having the 3 or 4 year research grant run out in British science nowadays is akin to getting relegated from the Premier League in football; you have one, perhaps two years to get back on track before the “parachute payment” – the papers derived from the last grant – run out. After that the climb back up again will become incredibly difficult. So the reality is that people in this setting will do no science whatsoever while they desperately scramble for funding.
This would not matter so much if the chance of success in the grant system was something people could live with. But the current overall grant application success rate is around 20%, or one in five. And for most labs the “effective” rate will be considerably less than that. This is because grants at the top end of the pile (from “elite 50” labs, or people with a super-hot project or a recent super-hot paper) will have a much higher change of funding. So it is widely believed that the success rate for ordinary mortals – which means most of the professional scientists working in UK universities – is well below the one in five figure.
And with most people viewing deep cuts in public spending as inevitable, no scientist believes the success rate – or the total number of projects funded – is going to rise. Every single one I have talked to expects it to fall. In other words, the days of “a one in ten chance” of being funded, if they are not already with us, are in sight.
This is not, I should make clear, to say that competition for grant funding is a bad thing. Some sifting of research proposals in competition is clearly necessary – it is a key part of ensuring that poorly-thought-out ideas are sifted out, and that the available money is spent wisely. However, “some competition is good” does not equate to “more competition is necessarily always better“. If one goes down that road, one eventually reaches a point where all time is devoted to the act of competing and no time to anything else.
“Get funded or die trying”
And here lies the problem. The current “get funded or die trying” grant chase, with its dismal success rate, devours the time and energy of academic scientists. It is particularly harsh on those in their first five years a university job. This is the stage directly after you have spent the best part of a dozen years learning to be a first-rate professional scientist. At which point, people have to stop being scientists, and have to become deal-makers, paper pushers, and indefatigable salesmen. One of the starkest accounts of this is given by the Cambridge academic Peter Lawrence, who subtitled his October 2009 article in the journal PLoS Biology
“The granting system turns young scientists into bureaucrats and then betrays them”
Another analogy might be spending ten to fifteen years training a consultant surgeon, and then making sure he or she spends almost all their time, not operating, but instead writing proposals to get someone to give them the money to pay an assistant surgeon do their operating for them.
The relentless competition, and the morale-sapping and attrition of those who are unsuccessful, also means a decreased “diversity” of the UK research base. Unfashionable research areas, or experimental techniques, gradually disappear as those in them fail to get funded. If it is possible to keep going in a minimal way without a big grant, such labs can keep slowly ticking over and the skills and ideas they have developed do not die out. But if the labs need a grant to survive at all, they go under. And if the fashion later changes – then you have to set up special new initiatives to re-train scientists in the lost skills, since the older scientists who used to teach people these things are now retired or not doing research any more. If this scenario seems far-fetched, it has already happened in the UK for “in vivo” skills – that is, the skills to do experiments on anaesthetized animals – and probably for other things too.
The only way to increase the present unsustainable grant success rate, it seems to me, is to decrease the number of applications relative to the amount of available funding. Some universities have already decided how they are going to address this – by trying to retire or make redundant the staff without research grants.
Of course, this strategy means that the typically large amount of teaching and university paperwork done by these people will then fall increasingly on the staff that do have the research grants. It is not a scenario that is set to make anyone happy. I also doubt it will raise the grant success rate, or the rate of scientific discovery.
There is an alternative. It is to look to a time before the grant chase became mandatory. When I started working in British universities, people still carried out, and published, high-quality research funded on a modest budget via the University itself. They also trained graduate students. More ambitious or upwardly-mobile people also applied for external research grants, as now.
The major objections to this old system, largely retrospective, were seen to be unaccountability and that it fostered, and indeed funded, complacency. However, is the present system, with its funding of (at best) one in five, and probably more like one in ten, research proposals, an improvement? Not as far as I can see.
So what to do?
Here is a vaguely radical proposal. I would suggest that ALL academic post-holders in UK science departments that are rated above a certain research attainment threshold should receive a minimal level of baseline research funding – say £5,000 to £15,000 per year. This would be “seed-corn” research funding to enable people to do stuff, whether “bridging” a research assistant’s salary for a month or two, subsidising a PhD student’s work, replacing equipment, funding their own experiments – whatever. I have lost count of the academic scientists I know who tell me that they are stymied because the grant has run out and they don’t have the money, or personnel, to wrap up the experimental work and publish it until they get another grant. A scheme of this kind would directly address this problem.
If this seems far-fetched, consider the current hidden cost of the response-mode system with its one-in-five to one-in-ten success rates. Writing grants takes time. A lot of time, And time means salary costs. A recent study by two Canadian academics concludes that the cost of the grant system, and the time spent penning fruitless applications, exceeds the cost of simply giving every qualifying University scientist in Canada £20,000.
I am not even suggesting baseline funding at this level – just some seeding money which would “lubricate” the system, and potentially reduce the number of desperate applications overloading the response mode grant system. One could also imagine various refinements to a baseline funding system like this – “banding” the direct support depending on past productivity would be one obvious idea.
Of course this sort of scheme would necessarily take some money out of the “response mode” pool. But at least this way it would be spread more widely, and into places where it would likely have more effect than a system which currently tends, by its nature, to reward those with the most funding by giving them even more of it. Most scientists do not believe, I suggest, that key advances arise predictably from the “top 50”, or even one hundred, labs. And few would believe that giving a sixth large grant to a lab which already has five achieves more than giving five small grants to labs with none, or second grants to labs with one. Indeed, one of the UK’s traditional science strengths has been precisely doing good science with small amounts of funding. Smaller labs do good science. They also still train most of the country’s PhDs. They are just as necessary to the “health” of the UK scientific enterprise as are the elite. And they are under threat.
Anyway, Sir Paul Nurse’s remarks suggest that he worries about the effect of having to pitch repeatedly for money, and be tied to targets, on the UK’s scientific elite. But the problem is far wider that that. I hope that, if he becomes Royal Society president, he will be looking to lobby for more than just the Manchester Uniteds and Chelseas of the system. UK science needs its mid-table, Championship, and League One and Two sides as well.