On science, funding and budget cuts

I suspect that most scientists, at some point in their professional career, have been asked asked by their family or friends what is it they actually do. I guess that only a small proportion have been able to convey the answer intelligibly, to the questioner’s satisfaction. But I further suspect, in the biological sciences at least, the proportion who are able to answer the question ‘why?’ is much, much smaller.

This is because the vast majority of biological scientists are not, despite what they put in their grant applications, directly involved in trying to cure anything. I worked for six years at the Medical Research Council, funded by the National Institutes of Health; yet my projects (generally) had nothing to do with preventing or curing disease. In fact, nuclear trafficking is such an integral part of cellular function that any defect at all usually results in instant death, which is generally incurable and likely to remain so. (It never stopped us from trying to get money from those places, though.) Yet our families and friends will often say to us ‘oh, and will that cure cancer?’ or something similar, when we’ve told them we’re working on a particular protein or gene or process. How many Cancer Research UK scientists are actually working on cancer?(My own mother had great hopes I’d cure cancer. For the longest time I didn’t know where to even start to answer her.)

So it was a great relief when I finally realized that I didn’t have to justify my existence, or my professional activities at least, in those terms. I can’t say there was a heavenly messenger or a blinding flash—I simply realized one day that I was doing science because, dammit, I like to find out how things work. Why did we want to find out how cells create the force required for amoeboid motility? Because we didn’t know, yet. You’re looking at the guy who at the age of 17 took apart a non-functioning washing machine to see how it worked—but who then put it back together as an intellectual exercise, and fixed it. The fixing was a by-product of the discovery process.

After this realization I would cheerfully tell friends and family that I wasn’t trying to cure cancer, or anything else: like a philosopher in the pure pursuit of knowledge I just wanted to see how things—in this case the ‘things’ happened to be people—worked. I believe that is the calling of scientists; to push back the borders of ignorance and to discover what else we don’t know (yet). Not, primarily, to give us penicillin and iPods and Apollo 11.

Yes, of course, the application of science through medicine and technology makes our lives longer, but not necessarily wider. That’s why we have art and poetry and literature and music: ‘useless’ subjects in purely economic or utilitarian terms, but absolutely, 100%, necessary. Science for the sake of science is just as important and useless as those other things.

Physics is like sex: sometimes something useful comes out, but that's not the reason we are doing it. — Richard P. Feynman

In fact, I maintain that science as it is practised today, costs us more than we get out of it. When we do get something out it’s because we’ve been working on it for years and years, without ever expecting a return. It’s actually very rare that industry funding of research yields a significant, positive ROI. Just look at the biotech boom and bust of a few years ago. Look at the failure of the Australian government to make money out of science. Science, monetarily, is a losing game: you have to put in so very much to science to get anything ‘usable’ out of it; and even then what you get is most often serendipitous. I do not believe in the trickle-down effect; that more money to science will stimulate the economy. Surely it’s the other way round? And yet, even if the material, the economic benefit of science is small, we should continue to do it. Because it makes us better human beings. Finding out how things work is almost a definition of humanity.

All of which means, that when the going gets tough, science needs to go. Science isn’t essential to our survival: rather it’s the mark of a civilization or society that has got its act together, and creates wonderful poetry and beautiful music and arresting literature. Science won’t save us–it’ll help us live longer, and it’ll give us an edge when we’re fighting for our lives against Nazi Germany, but it’s wonderfully and beautifully wasteful.

So when the country is in debt up to its nostrils, and hospitals and schools are suffering, we need cuts in the (publicly-funded) science budget. I don’t believe doing science is a total luxury, but we do have to face up to reality: it can not be funded unless we have a strong financial base. Which we don’t. And other things are more important, at least in the short term. The Labour Government is promising science budget cuts, and the Conservatives are saying the same. Get the country back on its pecuniary feet, and then (and only then) throw money at research. The unpalatable message is that we can’t afford a government that will fund science at the expense of the balance of payments.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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79 Responses to On science, funding and budget cuts

  1. Henry Gee says:

    I agree with you, of course, Dr Grant. I can say this because I have form and I have also argued elsewhere that the division between science and the arts is entirely artificial, because one should be able to appreciate the works of science in purely aesthetic terms, in the same way that one might appreciate a glass of wine or a good book.
    PS: I appreciate the tag. The cheque is in the post.
    PPS: As you have quoted Feynman, I shall assume that you’re granting a general licence to quote off-colour jokes about research. My favorite is
    Q – Why is doing a PhD like an erection?
    A – Because the more you think about it, the harder it gets.

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    I don’t accept this at all (but then I am marking exams and feeling rather cantankerous). What exactly is our financial base? Does anyone actually know the economic benefits produced by funding of scientific research? How about cutting defence and charging non-dom Lords a bit of tax as alternative solutions to the ‘problem’?

  3. Eva Amsen says:

    “and charging non-dom Lords a bit of tax”
    Or: no tax = no healthcare/garbage collection/use of public roads, etc. =D
    Richard, I’m impressed that you once accidentally fixed a washing machine. Can you come over and accidentally fix the door lock on mine? My landlord still hasn’t called the repair man. The problem is: once the laundry is done, the door is supposed to unlock, but it only does that 5-10 minutes after manually switching it off.

  4. Richard P. Grant says:

    Ooh, I’ve fixed door locks on them too.
    I think, Stephen, it’s going to take more than a few quid charged to non-doms to solve the problem.

  5. Sabine Hossenfelder says:

    The problem is that living in a capitalist society many people don’t get the point of doing something if it does not in any clear way result in material good. (I don’t necessarily mean money, health also is a “good”). That understanding has a value per se seems to have gotten lost about a century ago, at least in Western societies. It is not clear to me why. I find it terribly debilitating if I have to come up with some “applications” of my research projects in the far future. I mean, what’s it good for knowing how the universe started? Will something come out of this that you’ll one day be able to buy at Wall-mart? Maybe. But I don’t actually care very much, not my job. Curiosity is one of the driving forces of our civilizations. It’s knowing for the sake of knowledge. It’s an expense that societies can’t afford unless they’ve reached a high level of material security. Maybe the problem is that we’re not communicating our understanding sufficiently (blogs help!). What is particularly sad is if you hear people (esp politicians) talk about the value of basic research as a “future investment” (keywords: innovation! international competition!) just to then always retreat to the same justification “we’re doing this because in the end we want to sell something.” I’ve come to believe they simply don’t have to courage to stand to the value of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

  6. Richard P. Grant says:

    Yup. To everything you say.

  7. Stephen Curry says:

    @Sabine – I’ve come to believe they simply don’t have to courage to stand to the value of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
    I agree completely and feel that, in the UK, the research councils have shied away from taking this argument more forcefully to their/our political masters.
    Richard – my point was really that we should be arguing from the facts, not just from supposition. Not an easy job, I know but necessary to elevate the discussion above a bar room chat. Speaking of which, mine will be a pint of Landlord later on…

  8. Svetlana Pertsovich says:

    By the way, recollection about fascists is pertinent…
    Budget cutting of Science plus cutting of number of Universities in the country is straight way to fascism. Because latter is merely extreme limitless stupidity adopted as a state strategy.
    Stephen, I think that you are right when you speak: “I don’t accept this at all”. However, current problems are more deep, than people estimate them…

  9. Richard P. Grant says:

    Is there seriously any doubt that research, overall, costs more than it yields (financially)?
    I’ll get the pint, Stephen; you get the cheesy chips.

  10. Stephen Curry says:

    Is there seriously any doubt that research, overall, costs more than it yields (financially)?
    Um, yes. Or can you provide a reference in support of that last (rather pubbish) statement…?

  11. Richard P. Grant says:

    Ha ha! I guess you could sum all the research expenditure and balance it against economic benefit; my prediction is that it won’t tally. Hey, I’m not the experimentalist any more.

  12. Richard Wintle says:

    Is there seriously any doubt that research, overall, costs more than it yields (financially)?
    I don’t doubt it. I suppose certain types of research could give a higher ROI though (aerospace? high-throughput drug screening vs., say, genome-wide association studies for drug targets? biofuels? crop research vs., say, the neurobiology of nematodes?).
    Stephen (if I’m reading him correctly) makes the point that it’s difficult to know what the economic indicators of a ‘strong’ economy are, and what the ‘true’ economic impacts of science are. There’s another side to this, which is that the true costs of actually doing the research are tremendously difficult to count (or ‘account for’, I suppose). One lovely example is the famous report about how it costs $800 million to develop a new drug… that being the total extended cost to the pharmaceutical industry, averaged across some time period, not the direct R&D cost.
    It’s all very confusing really and I shall have to go and thing about complicated bioinformatical things now for a break.

  13. Ian Brooks says:

    @Sevatlans: Can you explain that argument please, I don’t understand.
    @Richard: as a mental exercise (pun intended), I agree, but as practicality I don’t. The loss in scientific “productivity” isn’t worth the short term saving. Indeed discovery, major discovery, is often serendipitous. But to have serendipitous discovery one needs people doing the daily grunt work. Furthermore, some of us do believe in the potential translation of our work, so do we get spared? Who makes that decision? How is it applied fairly?
    @Stephen: Got any pork scratchings to go with my pint of Greene King?

  14. Benoit Bruneau says:

    Here in California (also run by an Austrian weirdo), the stem cell agency claims that they are “Creating jobs: Our major facilities are generating 13,000 job-years of employment, bringing in $100 million in tax revenue” and that with bricks and mortar projects and actual scientific projects that indeed this will all stimulate the economy and bring more money in than is put in…. Not sure if this is globally applicable or even really true, but that’s what the public is being told.

  15. Alejandro Correa says:

    I remember, in someone countries the hard science let is unfortunately somewhat neglected because, here the jobs in science are minimal and there is extraordinary competition, envy, jealousy, rivalry, fear of perdition the job, besides having to be subjected to small group move the principal University of simpatric guild group inmoral scientists who are more engaged in politics that the science, is regrettable and a shame. Depend upon that you be a good policy (fanatic) will have a good position in a University (an very good position ah!), not by talent or good scientific or scientific outstanding for yours achievement own of the talent is an sorrow punish.on the other hand they have had to create new Universities, but free will, but they will always be looked as inferior for the small group of simpatric guild of scientific-political-fanatic undesirable and mediocre.

  16. steffi suhr says:

    I just learned in the last few months that different countries really, really want large international research facilities such as the ESRF in Grenoble, the EMBL in Heidelberg or the European XFEL – in the longer-term, the local/regional economy gets a boost from the money spent for, in and around them. Of course, international is probably the key word here. Although the revenue will be smaller for smaller projects, I suspect the same mechanism would apply there. So if you cut funding too much in your country, you probably risk losing the knowledge and expertise necessary to be competitive in that respect.
    Just from an economical standpoint, of course.

  17. Richard P. Grant says:

    Ian, I’m not suggesting, as you know, cutting basic science entirely. Yowch. But I think that in order to survive, it has to be trimmed. And there is, essentially, no fair way of doing that.
    Stephen, defence is already overstretched and has been cut massively. We can’t depend on the US to help us there, either (I was reading about the cutting of the F-22 and it made me very sad, and a little worried).
    I’d be interested to see the balance books, Benoit. $100 million in tax revenue sounds a lot, but I’m a bit wary when it’s claimed that’s more than being spent. That amount of money gets you a couple of decent buildings, I think; and who’s paying the salaries you’re getting the tax revenue off? (Reminds of when the Govt here pumped a load of cash into the NHS and then hiked NI contributions to pay for it, penalizing the very people they were supposed to be funding.)
    Steffi, absolutely right—but aren’t all countries actually in the same boat?
    As I see it, you can’t cut spending on education, and you can’t cut health. The (second?) biggest drain in the UK is social security and I can’t see that being scaled back, and neither should it be. Is there a rational reason we shouldn’t scale back on publicly-funded science until we can afford it again?

  18. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I went to a therapeutically-focused cancer symposium a few months back and was blown away by how much progress basic researchers are making just by thinking a bit more translationally – a bit more about the patient. There are scores of very interesting molecular medicines in the pipeline and there is a tangible feeling that this focus is going to make a real different. I’m sure it’s happening with other diseases too. And the basis for all these therapies are pathways discovered not too long ago by basic researchers just fiddling with ‘how things work’. So I don’t think it’s fair to say that basic research isn’t making a dent in the sorts of things people care about when they think about science’s role in ‘helping’ society.
    Having said that, I do think that scientific research is a luxury compared to healthcare, education, helping out impoverished families, etc. We should strive to keep it going as much as we can, but if it’s a recession, I assume (though don’t know, as I’m no economist) that everything will need to be scaled back, including research. I accept that, even if it makes my career prospects that much harder.

  19. Richard P. Grant says:

    So I don’t think it’s fair to say that basic research isn’t making a dent in the sorts of things people care about when they think about science’s role in ‘helping’ society.
    When pushed, I would have said that my research was part of the pot out of which would come new medicines and whatnot. Many years down the line. So, yeah; but again, that was never my motivation, and I think support for science will increase once people understand it’s not (for many) the primary reason for doing science.
    I’m also a little sceptical (_surely not?_ —Ed.) about this focus you describe. We see so many promising molecular medicines fail, not even make it to Phase II, etc. But I hope I’m wrong!

  20. Brian Derby says:

    Richard – and everybody else. The economic argument for and against public funding of scientific research is essentially reworking the grounds of macroeconomic theory – supply side against Keynsian.
    Government funding of science can be thought of as any public works project, the benefits of which are increased employment of the recipients and the associated supply chain. Output is trained personnel (_pace_ Jenny and Ian) and an increase in the knowledge base, which may or may not be commercially useful. This of course is funded by taxation, which reduces demand elsewhere in the economy. The counter argument from supply side theory is that by reducing taxation the active part of the economy increases demand and that this is then satisfied by economic expansion in the market-led bits of the economy that are best placed to grow (and therefore should get the priority).
    This is only an explanation of how economists/political camps think there policies work. Of course these are all dressed up in slogans/propaganda. Essentially, whether or not to cut government expenditure depends on which method you believe offers the best rational control of the economy. BUT the economy is a massively non-linear system and our understanding of its operation is imperfect, hence both camps can produce reasoned arguments as to why they are correct and the others are fools wrong.
    If cuts are decided and I am sure they are already, the positioning of the knife with respect to science funding will differ little between the parties because we are low on their radar. However, the research budget is pretty small so you do not gain much by removing it all. My forecast is that the cut will be about the average for the whole expenditure round but we will be told that there is no cut and instead efficiency savings will be made. Anyone for Newspeak?
    Back to commercial returns from science. Like all commercial investments, some sciebtific research returns commercial applications, others do not. I have worked extensively with industry and their are exciting projects to be done with immediate commercial return. These are mostly directly funded by industry but can be interesting and challenging, with the added frission of a real deadline to get things working.

  21. Maria Hodges says:

    This also touches on our uneasy relationship with making money out of science – certainly in the UK, perhaps across Europe. There’s a sort of selfless purity in researching simply because we want to understand the world. It connects us to the long tradition of ‘pure’ science – I feel like I’m part of a proud history of science, part of the gentlemen who started the Royal Society 350 years ago.
    The open access movement plays on this purity – insisting that results of taxpayer/grant money should be open to all, for free, and the funding bodies appear to be supporting this. And yet at the same time we are being encouraged by the government to commercialise our research, something the US is far, far better that than us. In the US, commercial enterprises can receive some NIH funding, with the hope of making a product they can sell. In the UK, a scientist with his/her own spin-off company is seen as tainted.
    The reason I love science is because of the joy in finding out how things work. But at heart I’m a pragmatist and I like having a job. I think it’s time for us all to face reality and realise that if science funding is to be maintained it will have to be commercially viable.

  22. Richard P. Grant says:

    I think that making all science funding contingent on commercial viability would be a big mistake. Just as arts funding can not be contingent on it.
    I have no particular beef with the ‘purity’ of science: I’ve worked in a company and I’d love to have had a startup. But I also believe in science for the sake of pure knowledge, and we must do that too.

  23. Stephen Curry says:

    Let’s have some facts please, people, not just supposition. How’s this for starters:
    UK Govt Annual science research budget: £3.7 billion
    Hidden costs of Trident nuclear replacement: £130 billon (OK this is a news report but if someone can point me to a better source, I’d be obliged).
    Yes, science should be harnessed where possible for commerical exploitation. But who has costed the true economic value of blue skies research? What is the value of antibiotics or the internet, to name just 2 serendipitous discoveries. We should not cave in to the govt’s narrow view of what constitutes research with economic impact.

  24. Richard P. Grant says:

    Oh Stephen. That’s 130 billion over 30 years. It’s about equivalent to the annual science budget, and dwarfed by the NHS (85 billion in 2004).
    Antibiotics and the internet were ‘invented’ years ago. They’ve probably been paid back by now.

  25. Richard P. Grant says:

    Let’s have some facts please, people, not just supposition
    And excuse me while I die of a coughing fit. This is Nature Network, FFS, we’re meant to speculate wildly (looks briefly at the T&Cs). Seriously, don’t you think that a post like this is designed to get people like you to find the numbers? That’s why I’m asking questions.
    I’m actually more interested in the question of why scientists feel theirs is a privileged profession and shouldn’t be subject to cuts.

  26. Stephen Curry says:

    130bn/30 = 4.3bn. That’ll do nicely.
    Is science claiming a privilege? I’m more interested in demonstrating our worth.
    How come bankers seem to have such a privileged position? We live in a society that doesn’t seem to work.
    Back to work now.

  27. Richard P. Grant says:

    That equation only works if we can rely on the US for defence. Or the French, I guess.
    Surely it makes more sense to shave 4 billion off the NHS budget? I mean, it’s only 5%, and we can afford to let 5% of the population die off so we can continue to do science?

  28. Maria Hodges says:

    This is the “Runaway trolley bus” question applied to science funding… no one wants any deaths, but if someone’s got to die then how do we decide? The trolley bus is about to run over hundreds of scientists, should we lob a fat banker on to the track and save us all or should all the scientists work together to make a super duper shiny braking system for the bus (which we can then sell to everyone else) or perhaps half the scientists work on the braking system while the rest do some blue-skies thinking, which may or may not, result in a decent driver.
    I think I might have pushed this analogy too far…

  29. Richard P. Grant says:

    No no no, Maria: I think that analogy is super!
    Please form an orderly queue behind Stephen and me while we choose which fat bankers (with a capital ‘W’) to lob in front of a bus first.

  30. Kristi Vogel says:

    How come bankers seem to have such a privileged position?
    Yes, I’d like an answer to this question too – they’re largely responsible for the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression (at least in the US), and we bail them out and give them bonuses?
    But that’s O/T, so on to Richard’s questions about science funding and the privileged position of scientists. At heart, I completely understand the motivation to do science for the sake of expanding knowledge and intellectual beauty. Honestly, I’d love to work on comparative brain development in birds, or gene regulatory networks in marine invertebrate embryos, but right now (and for the foreseeable and woeful economic future), that kind of research is a luxury. I think many scientists have already been thrown under the trolley, which is a streetcar named Translational Research, on the Bench to Bedside route.
    Thing is, “translational research” can be tricky to define, and to sell to the taxpaying public. And in the US, we’re struggling to come out of a dominant paradigm of anti-intellectual, toxic, weapons grade stupid, which doesn’t help when you’re trying to explain why research in yeast, nematodes, and fruit flies was and is crucial to understanding the functions, interactions, and therapeutic targetability of certain disease genes. If that kind of research is difficult to justify, well … let’s just say it doesn’t bode well for research that has no direct application to human health and well-being. Doesn’t matter whether the research is much, much less expensive than developing and characterizing preclinical models for human diseases – it’s just not going to fly in the current economy.

  31. Alejandro Correa says:

    Maria – very educational and practical commentary, I liked.

  32. Benoit Bruneau says:

    Jenny: “I do think that scientific research is a luxury compared to healthcare, education, helping out impoverished families, etc”
    and Kristi: “… that kind of research is a luxury. I think many scientists have already been thrown under the trolley, which is a streetcar named Translational Research, on the Bench to Bedside route.”
    Well yes and no. Let’s not limit ourselves to basic biology; there is tons of for example epidemiology, psychology, applied physics, and of course basic biology, and from all of this, some extraordinary good that brings in tons of revenue comes out. Most of the time not so much, but how does one know that your marine invertebrate chromatin remodeler isn’t the key to Alzheimer’s disease? Point is, basic research is the foundation for true discovery, and without that investment, a nation or government is cutting down its best chances at massive gains for its health and welfare, and of course income.
    But some govts, Canada for example, have insisted that funded biomedical research be more translational, and more commercializable (is that a word?). This is very short-sighted as it creates an enterprise based not on discovery, but on trying to work what is currently known towards these goals. Economic climate or not, this is the one that’s not sustainable.

  33. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I understand why some people are upset about the prospect of cutting a bit of the science budget, but do you honestly think science is more important than healthcare? I knew someone’s gran who had to wait 1 year for a hearing aid. There are people in the UK doing without certain drugs and procedures right now because there isn’t enough money in the NHS – is it more important to fund really crucial medical procedures than, say, ten new science labs, in the short term? I don’t think so. How about we all take a bit of a cut until things get better?
    Regarding defense spending – well, I’m against it, but I can’t see that ever stopping while we have so many wars on, so I don’t even factor it into the mix.

  34. Richard Wintle says:

    But some govts, Canada for example, have insisted that funded biomedical research be more translational, and more commercializable (is that a word?). This is very short-sighted as it creates an enterprise based not on discovery, but on trying to work what is currently known towards these goals.
    Hoorah! I’m glad you said that, Benoit (I am still in that system of course, and thus have compelling reasons to toe the “translational outcomes” line).
    The number of times I’ve read (or, truth be told, written) rather woolly “impacts and benefits to society” sections in such grants… argh. I can’t even finish that sentence.

  35. Benoit Bruneau says:

    “do you honestly think science is more important than healthcare?” Of course not! But one budget does not go hand in hand with the other, and the future of healthcare IS research, so science is tremendously important, and should not be restricted or hindered.

  36. Richard P. Grant says:

    But one budget does not go hand in hand with the other
    sorry, what? There’s a limited pot. Of course it does. I am talking about publicly-funded research, and I’m talking about it in the UK where money from the same purse goes to education, research, health, defence, police, &c.

  37. Benoit Bruneau says:

    Of course there’s a limited pot, but there is not necessarily a direct correlation between health and research budgets. In fact they often fall under different ministries or departments (or whatever) that have specific allocations from the federal budgets. So the specific allocations to one or the other are unrelated; that’s what I meant. I don’t pretend to comprehend the intricacies of budgets in the wealthy countries that we live in, but certainly in Canada and the USA the allocations to research have been made largely based on political whims by the parties controlling the purse strings, rather than true economic constraints; both in lean and rich times.

  38. Richard P. Grant says:

    Well, they might be from different departments, but it all comes from the Treasury in the end. It’s not like the different ministries have their own tax collectors…
    Moving on, this is rather interesting. Apparently, these are mythical statements:

    University research is the key source of technology and innovation for new hi-tech firms;
    Venture capital is the primary source of finance;

    The best way for Government to support technology development in companies is by funding multi-partner research collaborations between universities and private sector firms

    according to a report from the University of Cambridge.

  39. Stephen Curry says:

    Everything that Benoit said.
    And here is a recent interview with Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, which touches on the foolishness of govterments trying to over-direct science into ‘impactful’, translational areas.

  40. Richard Van Noorden says:

    “Is there seriously any doubt that research, overall, costs more than it yields (financially)?”
    My view:
    In the long run, discoveries in basic research stimulate economies to unfathomable levels by allowing them to expand. (Simple example: think you’ve squeezed as much as possible out of your available resources? Foundations of quantum mechanics -> lasers [among other things!] -> so much more that can be done with machines, more quickly -> larger economy & higher standards of living. Same story to be told with DNA discovery -> higher standards of living. Every advance ultimately boils down to basic curiosity-driven discovery – though it can be a long way back and doesn’t necessarily benefit the person or country from which the innovation came).
    How long is the long run for basic research? In many cases too long to stimulate economy right now. Hence the carefully nuanced Cambridge Uni report: “University IP does have a role to play, but its effect on local and national development is modest in the short to medium term.”
    The problem with cutting science now is not that we lose a chance to stimulate the immediate economy, but what it means for the country two decades or more hence. As Ian Brooks says “The loss in scientific “productivity” isn’t worth the short term saving.”
    I agree with the basic point that science is curiosity.

  41. Robert Townley says:

    Stephen Curry- I found some facts. Richard Grant’s opinion is refuted by many of the facts that I was able to find in a short web search. The Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and the Academy of Medical Sciences commissioned a study that can be found here …
    The gist is …
    “”For each pound invested by the taxpayer or charity donor in cardiovascular disease and mental health research, a stream of benefits is produced equivalent to earning 39 pence and 37 pence respectively each year ‘in perpetuity’.” p.3
    These seem like big returns to me.
    Richard Grant- Are you still suffering from the influence of Eva’s cocktail? A short search of the web revealed many studies that found a positive benefit to cost ratio of public investment in sciences ranging from weather forecasting to vaccination against viruses. I’m a little disappointed that you don’t feel the need to be more rigorous. Would you consider changing the title of your blog to “The Journalist”?

  42. Kristi Vogel says:

    but how does one know that your marine invertebrate chromatin remodeler isn’t the key to Alzheimer’s disease?
    In principle I agree with you Benoit – there are perhaps hundreds of examples of basic biology discoveries, sometimes in obscure organisms, which have abundant translational potential. Look how much we know about nicotinic acetylcholine receptors from studies in the Torpedo electric ray, or about sodium channels, thanks to conotoxins from marine snails. You’ll get no argument from me that such information can contribute to improving human health, and expanding knowledge of normal physiology and nervous system functions. But it’s a much harder research “sell” to the US taxpayer than, say, a preclinical model for pediatric cancers.
    Sometimes I try to look at biomedical research funding from the perspective of an outsider, maybe a middle class taxpayer in the US, who has little background in science. By most standards, American academic researchers, particularly the biology/biochemistry variety at medical schools or research institutes, make pretty damn good salaries. Sit on a study section for federal research funding, look at budgets, and you’ll know that lots of PIs make really good salaries, often well into six figures. Definitely six figures, if you’re an MD PhD. I don’t think I’ve somehow ended up on unrealistically weird luxury budget study sections, either. Six figures looks like a great living, especially during this economic downturn. Maybe you even got one of those nice start-up packages, in which your spouse works in your lab as a turbotech or lab manager (a surprisingly common situation), and so there’s a second salary coming in to the household. In general, you don’t have to deal much with stupid people, or violent people, or people with poor personal hygiene, and you don’t have to work outside in all kinds of weather. If you’re successful, then you get to travel to seminars and meetings, sometimes internationally, at which you spend a lot of time schmoozing and enjoying some very fine food, drink, and intellectual company. All of this, to your average working stiff, looks quite cushy. That’s because it is cushy. Maybe you owe the taxpayer something tangible and healthcare-related in return.

  43. Richard P. Grant says:

    RVN: the question is, from the economic standpoint, do ‘higher standards of living’ equate to more tax revenue/increased GDP?
    Robert Townley has found a document that claims it does, quite substantially, after 17 years. At least in CV and mental health research. Maybe he should find the figures for basic research, which has been the main thrust of this discussion.
    Even so, this doesn’t at all address the fact that the country can’t afford it, now. It’s not a case of short-term gain, it’s a case of surviving, of persuading the IMF and the markets that we should keep our AAA rating—because that’s probably going to have more weight long-term. There’s no point throwing money at research now in hopes of a gain in 17 years, if we’re going to be broke tomorrow.
    Kristi, 6 figure? Wow. Things seem a lot rosier over in Texas!

  44. Maria Hodges says:

    The “Vision for UK Research” report is at pains to says that there is no conflict between establishing a strong research base and funding translational research. The aim should be to make sure that any commercial opportunities are recognised and exploited. So could people in the lab tell me whether when you’re researching on your curiosity-driven project and somthing fabulous comes out that is publishable whether it’s obvious (a) when it has a potential commercial impact and (b) what on earth to do about it? Would UK PIs have any idea how to go about setting up their own company and fleshing out a business plan and are you duty-bound to go through your university/institute’s translational research wing – and are they any good? Do you get seminars as lab heads/professors on what to look for?

  45. Austin Elliott says:

    bq. “Kristi, 6 figure? Wow. Things seem a lot rosier over in Texas!”
    Well, six figures in dollars is anything over £ 65 K pa in the UK. I guess a large number (most?) of full Professors at the research intensives will be earning that or better.
    The Senior Lecturer scale (old Univs) tops out at £ 55-56 K pa (and a bit more in London), and with the Reader/discretionary points above that you are getting towards £ 65… so personally I would predict that most full Professors in the UK would be getting £ 65 K or better. And all “Clinical Senior Lecturers” will be too, as their pay scale starts at about £ 70K (CSL is essentially the entry grade for people in Depts of Medicine who have clinical academic posts but are also qualified in medicine to consultant level).
    Of course, these figures are a little misleading WRT what the average UK PI/academic earns since if you stick at the lecturer grade the salary scale eventually stops at £ 44-45 K, well short of six (US or UK!) figures. (It is about US $ 67-68K at current exchange rates)
    Salaries are certainly higher in the US, of course. I doubt that anyone with tenure in the US – at least in a medical school – would be earning as little as that top of the UK lecturer scale. But even with the UK wage, Kristi’s central point is valid – to a lot of people that still seems like good pay for a job with a lot of freedom and some significant perks. Certainly £ 45K pa would just put you in the top 10% of UK (salaried) earners.

  46. Richard P. Grant says:

    Kristi’s point is absolutely valid. I once heard that when calculating salaries vs cost of living, the equation for GBP:USD was essentially 1:1. Is that not true any more?

  47. Stephen Curry says:

    @Robert Townley – many thanks for your input – and support.
    (*Parenthetically* I am even more pleased that the ‘star’ of Naturally Obsessed has weighed in on the discussion here at NN! There was a viewing at Imperial last December which I wrote up here.)
    Richard – “the fact that the country can’t afford it, now”… ‘fact’? Reference please! There is more to this issue than just taking Darling’s say-so that the only way out of this is to cut, cut and cut again. Some prudent investment is also required. I’m no expert, but didn’t it work for FDR?

  48. Richard P. Grant says:

    Well, this might be a good place to look:

  49. Austin Elliott says:

    Yes, I haven’t factored in cost of living, which would certainly be higher in the UK. Whenever I am in France or Germany I have the strong impression that the cost of living there is notably less than the UK too, at least in terms of bought goods (food, clothes, even cars). Of course, the cost of accommodation and the tax rates make exact comparisons difficult.
    Re Kristi’s comments about finding out what PIs earn from study sections (i.e. from salaries quoted on grants), Full Economic Costing (FEC) now means the same is true in the UK. Historically, full Professors’ wages in the UK were a closely-guarded secret since they were negotiated individually and were not on standard salary scales. We (my Faculty) are widely rumoured to have a fair few senior Professors earning over 100K pounds a year, and nationally the number of such people in UK academia seems to be rising.
    There was a discussion of the increase in the UK academic “rich list” over at the Times Higher Ed a little while back. I have a lot of misgivings about a free market in academic wages based on sport-style “transfer value”, mainly because it is so divisive. see e.g. the last but one comment on the Times Higher Ed thread from “Russell Group Red”.
    Getting back a bit to the central theme, people in the private sector (like my brother!) regularly opine that people who work in Universities have it easy. He and I have been having this argument over a lot of years.
    Also back to the main theme, I think Universities in the UK have been guilty of emphasising the economic value of research over-much in recent years, compared to the economic value of the teaching they do at both undergrad and graduate level. The central point is that these two things are mixed within older-style institutions. The determination to cost them separately, while understandable, is deeply misleading in terms of how these Universities actually work.

  50. Eva Amsen says:

    Yeah, it’s about 1:1 between Canada and UK, and Canada and US are also about 1:1. At least in the five-digit figures between 20-40k. I know nothing about that sixth digit, or even the higher fifth.
    Moving to the UK, I deliberately didn’t convert my salary to what it would be in dollars, because I’d have to do the same with rent and other things, and would have an instant heart attack. (Although I do it when something is obviously cheap (like beer! It’s 1/2 to 2/3 of what it costs in Toronto!) because then I feel like a winner.)
    (Oh, and seconding Stephen’s parentheticals (I do love parentheses, after all). Hello Rob! I also loved the documentary, but forgot where I wrote about it…)

  51. Richard P. Grant says:

    Funnily enough, I’ve just seen something (that I can’t really talk about until we PR it) that tells us where Government actually has a duty to fund research, because (a) Big Pharma isn’t (maybe they shouldn’t, but that’s another discussion) and (b) we’ll die if they don’t.
    Which is an interesting thought.

  52. Kristi Vogel says:

    Agreed that the cost of living is much higher in the UK, than in most places in the US. I doubt that any major city in Texas even comes close to being as costly. And there are six figure PI salaries across the US, not just in expensive cities like San Francisco, Boston, and NYC. Some of those six figure salaries go to assistant professors, I might add, at both private and state MRUs. If the faculty member is employed at a state university, then his or her salary is public record. Might be difficult to find the information, if you don’t know how or where to look for it, but technically it’s public record.

  53. Austin Elliott says:

    What I would say about the salaries thing is that historically research (and researchers) in the UK are cheap (or good value for money, to put it another way), which makes the current Govt’s promises of swingeing cuts all the more hard to take.
    Re. basic research and Big Pharma, I would agree that they are doing less. A lot of Big Pharma’s current business model is based on “outsourcing”. To reduce the risk of spending $$$ / £££ researching things/areas that don’t pan out, they now try to buy in “pipeline” (research that looks like it is panning out, plus drug leads derived from it), either by partnership with smaller companies that have done the early work or by simply buying up the smaller outfit. The PharmaCos are also trying to outsource the cost later in the drug development process by contracting out their clinical R&D and trials. The idea there is that you won’t have to pay a lot of clinical R&D / trials people salary at times when your pipeline is thin, as now they work for some other company under contract and not directly for you. Anyway, the idea is increasingly that the core Big Pharma’s expertise is “managing the drug discovery process”, rather than actually doing the whole thing in-house.
    Of course, this means, as Richard says, that the Pharma Cos are not going to be doing the basic research. So that will have to be done in Univs and Institutes, and funded by Govt or charities. Or else it won’t get done, period.

  54. Richard P. Grant says:

    Hmm. I’m now wondering how much charities spend on basic research vs applied research. The Wellcome trust funds basic research, and were mostly unaffected by the global downturn. The current UK balance of payments is about similar to what the Government spends on research, if I’m reading all these figures correctly. What proportion of government spend is basic vs applied?
    If the government stopped funding basic research for, say, five years, would science in this country suffer irrecoverably?
    Of course, it’s simple-minded to think that by cutting basic science alone we can get the country out of debt. We’re all going to have to pay higher taxes, and other things are going to have to be cut as well. We could save more than a billion a year by fixing waste and fraud in Social Security, and probably double that by firing half the NHS management (OK, that latter number I just made up.) I wonder how much money the public sector could contribute if we got rid of any number of civil servants who spend all day simply figuring out our bizarre and convoluted taxation system(s) (flat rate of tax, anyone)?

  55. Robert Townley says:

    Stephen and Eva- thanks for the shout.
    Richard- maybe the first cuts in the science budget could be funds for training new Ph. D. students and Post doc.s? The value of having a doctorate would increase sharply and the economic savings that would result from avoiding revolution would be enormous.

  56. Richard P. Grant says:

    Heh, that’s a brilliant suggestion, and goes some way to addressing Jenny’s revolution, too.
    But just to complicate matters… it’s not going to happen in the UK because PhD students are kept off the dole queue… sigh

  57. Benoit Bruneau says:

    Kristi: “That’s because it is cushy. Maybe you owe the taxpayer something tangible and healthcare-related in return.”….Hmmm, yes it can be cushy, until you lose the grant and that soft money position is pulled out from under you…. and what exactly do we owe the taxpayer for our 4 years of undergrad, 5 years (or more) of postdoc, and the first five years or so definitely not getting 6 figures? You’re talking about more established people in the most elite institutions. The stats are not pleasant for most, and the average salaries for a PI, who incidentally will get his/her first grant only at around age 40 in the US, are not in the six figure range, no matter where they live. Regardless, why do we “owe” a specific return; we are doing this for the service of science, not for me or my best pal or my wife or whatever. This is really really hard and stressful work, and yes there are advantages, but for most it’s really not cushy at all, and for the education we got to get here and the relatively low pay, I don’t feel I owe anyone a particular direction in my research. I owe my friends and family patience in the times when I can’t get my grants funded or papers published, I owe the bank for my ridiculous mortgage, I owe my employers consistent performance at the level that they expect since they hired me, I owe my kids time back that I needed to take to get this job done right, but I certainly don’t owe the taxpayers a specific return on their investment that they might decide would be more worth their tiny fraction of their income tax.

  58. Richard P. Grant says:

    And doesn’t that bring us back to the point that society funds science because it’s a measure of our civilization, not because of the $$$?

  59. Benoit Bruneau says:

    Yes, that is precisely the point.
    ….although somehow I get the feeling that you meant more than just that….

  60. Richard P. Grant says:

    Oh, I did mean more than that.

  61. Richard Wintle says:

    Agree with Eva et al regarding cost of living. It’s convenient when visiting the UK to just “pretend” that pounds are dollars. Otherwise Canadian visitors would starve to death thinking about how much money they were spending (except, as Eva notes, on beer. Candy is also a bit cheaper I think).
    I remember being flabbergasted some years ago on learning how little London-based senior professorial types earned, to the point at which I actually found it hard to believe that anyone would pursue a career in science. Some of the numbers punted around in the comments here don’t seem to contradict that observation.

  62. Richard P. Grant says:

    And in an interesting twist, California is bankrupt, and is cutting loadsa money from education. CIRM, however (which as far as I can tell is State-funded) is increasing its spend.
    Is that right?

  63. Richard Wintle says:

    Californians probably know better, but CIRM was funded as far as I know by a directed initiative (selling State Bonds or suchlike) – that money is directed to stem cell research (as a response to the Bush-era moratorium on federal funding for stem cells). Education comes from the state budget per se, which is a different animal.
    I heard from some colleagues that California Universities (state ones, not private ones, of course) had an enforced shutdown of a couple of weeks over Christmas, more or less. What an awful kind of cost-cutting manoeuvre.

  64. Austin Elliott says:

    Richard W wrote:

    “I remember being flabbergasted some years ago on learning how little London-based senior professorial types earned, to the point at which I actually found it hard to believe that anyone would pursue a career in science. Some of the numbers punted around in the comments here don’t seem to contradict that observation.”

    Well, the top-end salaries have been rising, see above. And if you think those wages are “sub-par”, Richard, spare a thought for us poor bloody infantry who do all the teaching of the students in the Universities. I’ve been on the “tenured Faculty” nigh-on twenty years, and I earn way less than £ 50K pa. I don’t live in London, of course, but it is still not exactly riches.
    Having said which…. one can still earn less. When I interviewed a dozen years back for a job as a manuscript handler at a well known major scientific journal based in London ** it was clear that the top of the pay scale for such folk was less than what I was then earning… which was a bunch of salary increments below what I get now.
    But you are right, it does sometimes make you wonder why people do it. The answer, I think, is intellectual curiosity and a relatively large amount of freedom of action in deciding what one does day to day. Of course, the latter is now getting more and more curtailed in Britain by the “audit culture” consuming the public sector. But as long as the supply of well-qualified postdocs ready to do the job exceeds the number of academic posts available (see posts and threads passim), I suspect little is going to change.

  65. Richard P. Grant says:

    Richard, thanks. You’re saying that the two buckets aren’t connected, in much the same way that Benoit implied? (Whereas in the UK, the Treasury can cut one Department to fund another.) Interestingly, the blog I linked to was hazy on that.
    Fascinating point there, Austin. ‘They’ tell us that we should expect to earn less because we’re enjoying what we do (that arguments is complete bollocks, but bear with me). So logically, if the audit culture means we enjoy it less, we should get paid more, yes?

  66. Austin Elliott says:

    Hah – I suppose that’s right, Richard. I won’t be anticipating a raise any time soon, though.
    My brother, who works in the private sector, has been insisting to me for 20 yrs that private sector top people earn much more because they (i) work harder; and (ii) are accountable, as in oversight/audit/targets. Most academics certainly disagree about the private sector folk working harder; my brother’s view is arguably coloured by knowing me (!). And now we have all the other stuff too.
    Of course, a further corollary of higher wages in the private sector is often taken to be lack of job security, another thing that isn’t what it used to be in UK Universities.
    But as you allude to, if Univs have replicated everything about the private sector (increasingly true) then where are the extra wages to reflect the new reality?

  67. Brian Derby says:

    My other half works in the private sector (she is an accountant) and I would say that she certainly works longer hours than I do. If we assume that I am an averagely hard working academic, on this sample of one, the private sector works harder.
    I think Austin’s fraternal discussions are probably correct. People in the private sector have to work harder (at least some of the time) because they are doing a job for a customer. In the academic sector that is not usually the case. I only feel that sort of pressure when I am doing direct paid for research for industry. That doesn’t happen very often but when you are doing that sort of work and an experiment goes pear-shaped or a fondly held hypothesis does not pan out to industrial expectation, the pressure can be quite intense. When we work on research council or equivalent projects, failure of a proposed set of experiments is not total failure and usually something can be salvaged. The difficulty we have in the UK at present is that there is a desire to introduce management practices better suited to the private sector, where there is the full array of carots and sticks to use on the workforce. University life is fairly devoid of monetary carrots and real sticks. The net result is that most academics live a gentle middle class life – often supplemented by a partner’s salary – but with a much less pressured environment than found in the private sector.

  68. Benoit Bruneau says:

    Richard: “Oh, I did mean more than that.”… care to clarify?
    Also re: “the two buckets aren’t connected”; that’s precisely the case for CIRM, as the money is locked away for this purpose only. But this is a rare exception. My point was that within a finite pot, there is not a direct correlation between funding for health care and funding for medical research, and unfortunately it is usually other worthy programs that are cut.
    Brian: “with a much less pressured environment than found in the private sector.” Yes and no. One can work not too hard in academia and get by, but to truly be at the top of the pile, it’s really quite hard, and the accountability is often to one’s own expectations, which in many cases are far higher than a client’s. It is true that we have the luxury of taking our time, and can recoup failed experiments without too much damage, and indeed that is definitely one of the many advantages of this job. So yes, while my pressures, and that of many of my colleagues are self-imposed, getting and keeping grants so that the research can continue at its current level is stressful enough thank you very much. Picture the funding agency as a client who can yank the funding if performance is not suitable.

  69. Kristi Vogel says:

    The latest American Association of Anatomists Newsletter has a summary of a recent AAMC survey on faculty salaries in basic sciences departments. It’s specific for medical schools in the US because, well, AAMC is the Association of American Medical Colleges, but the results are fairly similar to my anecdotal musings. Median annual salaries across levels, by department:
    Bioethics/Medical humanities – $102,000
    Anatomy – $104,000 (~ £68,000)
    Genetics – $112,000
    Biostatistics – $113,000
    Biomedical informatics – $111,000
    Physiology – $111,000
    These results are skewed, of course, by the salaries of department chairs (median = $224,000 for anatomy) and for full professors (median = $137,000 for anatomy). Median instructor salary in anatomy (usually a “teaching only” position) is $63,000.
    Disclaimer: I, like Austin, am one of the poor bloody infantry, and as I’m in an anatomy department, my teaching load is pretty massive. It’s not the sort of stuff that I can use in my research, either – in fact, it’s related only distantly, primarily through the involvement of dorsal root and sympathetic ganglia. My salary is not six figures, and I didn’t even consider buying a house until I was certain I could afford to pay the mortgage on an instructor’s salary, if push came to shove wrt tenure. It didn’t, fortunately, but I was a renter for many years, before I felt I could afford the commitment of a mortgage.

  70. Richard P. Grant says:

    Thanks for that, Kristi. Useful.
    For comparison, when I left Australia I was on AU$81,000, which at the time was about UK£40k (and is now, with the feeble £, ~48k; US$73k at today’s rates). Senior postdoc salaries in the UK are around £40k (US$60k at today’s rates), but that’s the top of the scale.
    Tie in anecdotal evidence about late nights trying to get data for a paper on which a grant (and hence your whole career) depends and no, I don’t think it’s a ‘gentle middle class life’.

  71. Maxine Clarke says:

    Richard, apologies in advance if I repeat anything as I am afraid I don’t have time to read through all 70 previous comments before commenting.
    In the UK, medical research and the national health service research have already been merged, of course. There is lots going on in university depts and hospitals now to make redundancies (ha!) and re-target academics’ research into more tangible “bedside” or “translational” goals. (I am attempting to write in value-free terms).
    In my view, arguing for cuts in science funding is totally counter-productive. However also in my view, scientists ought to be better at saying constructive and coherent things about what they do and why/how it has economic value. If scientists just moan about cuts then they sound self-interested. If scientists have well-presented arguments about how much their endeavours add to economic wealth and job creation, then they don’t.
    “Science would matter even if it were a true luxury with no payoff at all — the pursuit of understanding is a celebration of human curiosity. But it is also a foundation stone of economic growth. Investment in basic research delivers the intellectual property on which new businesses are founded, and provides the skilled workforce needed by key industries such as phamaceuticals and IT.
    Unlike most public spending, the £7.5 billion science budget pays for itself over and over again. University spinout companies have been floated on the stock market or taken over for a combined total of £3.5 billion over the past four years, and employ 14,000 people. The Medical Research Council estimates that every pound it spends brings back a 40p return each year.”

  72. Richard P. Grant says:

    Maxine, I never read my comments either.
    I’m not really arguing for cuts: just pointing out that in a time of crisis, we shouldn’t plead for special status. Not short term. Of course, killing it completely or making every scientist go abroad is a Bad Thing, but I’m not arguing for that.
    The Medical Research Council estimates that every pound it spends brings back a 40p return each year
    In other words, it’s running at a loss of 60 p in the pound?

  73. Duncan Hull says:

    Good to see this issue given prominence this morning on Radio 4, see Former science minister Lord Sainsbury and former Conservative cabinet minister, Lord Waldegrave, examine the importance of scientific research on the UK’s economy.
    Leading members of both major parties have agreed that the UK must invest heavily in scientific research if it is to maintain its economic competitive advantage, according to a report by the Royal Society published today.

  74. Richard P. Grant says:

    UK must invest heavily in scientific research … economic competitive advantage

  75. Brian Derby says:

    Well I see that those that hope to be running the state after the next election in the UK, intend to simplify company taxation by removing research tax credits. No need to worry about their opinion as to the value of research.

  76. Kyrsten Jensen says:

    I’m joining rather late to the conversation, but life lately hasn’t been conducive to reading blogs (shame, I know).
    I have always been a proponent of funding basic research to our best abilities. I have worked on more than a few basic research projects that have been quite interesting (isolating enzymes from psychrophilic bacteria, with the eventual goal that we could find an enzyme that would work better than the current ones in your cold-water detergent), and feel that such research, even if the ROI is far off, should still have a place.
    My time as a summer student at a large pharma company showed me the dark side of science. At the time, my naive self was absolutely outraged that a project my group had been working on for 10 yrs, was being shelved due to lack of drug candidates. I just didn’t understand how they could make 10 people change to a completely different virus, completely different animal models, just like that snaps fingers
    That being said, I’ve worked in industry for a number of years now, and I am finally starting to understand the business side of things. As much as my rosy younger self wants to believe that basic research should be done, it is certainly not a money-maker for industry, in most cases. Business has to be “light on its feet” and be able to change course when necessary.
    However, I do strongly feel that my taxes should go towards basic research. I really wish, that on my taxes, I could submit where I wanted my taxes to go. Of course, if we could all do that, many programs would die.
    Richard, your story of the washing machine makes me think that you need this: http://www.thinkgeek.com/tshirts-apparel/unisex/generic/8f52/

  77. Richard P. Grant says:

    Ha ha! I figure that if it’s broke, I’ve got nothing to lose by taking it apart.

  78. Working for the man

    I wonder if US President Barack Obama is onto something here. You may have heard that he’s asked asked for a 6% increase in the NRSA stipend—the National Institutes of Health’s ‘training’ stipend—for postdoc fellows. He’s …

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