In any UK-funded science grant application you have to write a bit about yourself and how great you are. Most people I know find this bit really hard; a few really don’t – I know some people who seem to like this bit. You have to write about much wonderful research you have done in the past, how many times each of your highly-exceptional research products were cited, how many A* papers you have (whatever that means) and what you are going to do to reach out to the future generations to tell them about your science. You cannot just write a mere resume but rather you have to sell yourself.
It’s a bit like being on the X-factor or Big Brother, I suspect. Most of us aren’t Susan Boyle, you can’t just sing but you have to be all-singing, all-dancing, all-desirable. But you have to do it. Often you have to fit in a research ‘challenge’ area as well, defined by research council focus-groups. These are ever-changing as well and can make or break a research field.
A good example of this was alternative fuel research back in the 70s. In the 70’s coupled with a lovely bought of inflation in the US, OPEC decided to raise the price of oil by 70%. This had enormous consequences, I remember being a kid when this happened and gasoline being rationed in the US – long lines at the pumps. One of the advantageous results though was that the government dumped a bunch of money into alternative fuel research and even put money into a mascot for educating children about ‘saving energy’ – Energy Ant!
As a little girl, Energy Ant taught me to be careful with electricity and not turn the heat up too high – I still have issues with that insect because of this, but this another story.
Then the funding was dropped. Why? Because the price of oil dropped again. Like it or not, gasoline is about the most efficient means of producing cheap energy. You get a lot of bang for your buck – and of course a bunch of stuff we don’t really want like global warming. No more funding for alternate energy research means that scientists, for the most part, stopped doing the research. Funding was also cut for nuclear waste research close to the same time because of the Three Mile Island incident – the one where the core melted and no one got hurt (really). Bye, bye alternate energy research USA.
Where are we now? Well there has been another oil crisis and gasoline prices are pretty damn high and there are not many good global (emphasis on the word global) alternatives. Even though many countries are trying their best to use more renewables, overall oil consumption is still rising. I could be wrong, but I suspect we would be much further ahead if the US government had kept up its funding for the last 40 years.
And here en lies the problem. Only a test of time really tells if research is going to be useful. That test of time is longer than most any government assessment period. There is an absence of long-term planning for science research. It may be because of the current recession and it may be just be the way the modern world works. The world is moving faster and faster, in terms of new technology and in sheer abundance of technological and scientific outputs. There are vastly more scientific journals than there were 100 years ago and vastly more folks doing scientific research (and competing for a small mini-pot of research money). Because there is SO MUCH out there, as a scientist you must promote your work. It isn’t good enough to sit in your office and just hope someone will read it, you have to try and get people to read you work. Not because you think it is the best thing ever necessarily, but part of science is that you want people to read and use your work to further their own or even prove your precious hypothesis wrong. This is what it is all about. This is how science (ideally) should work and only time will tell if that work is useful 50, 60, 70 years from now.
I was at a conference last week where instead of calling research ‘basic science’ or ‘applied science’ it was referred to as ‘pre-applied science’ and ‘applied science’. I like this. It shows the need for both. Science research can appear wasteful but then car engines are only about 25% efficient.