The Importance of Being Confident

The government is worried about the economy and rightly so. It’s in a bit of a state.

When Value Added Tax was raised by 2.5% to 20% at the turn of the year, there were nervous glances to see what impact it might have on consumer confidence. The VAT increase was probably carefully calculated to ensure that people out shopping would not be deterred from their purchases, so that the consumption merry-go-round would keep on turning.

The government’s concern for the economy is also behind its reluctance to bite the hand of bankers, who are awarding themselves generous bonuses just as the rest of the country public is beginning to feel the pain of spending cuts brought on by their failures. Banking is important so we all have to pay. Despite the massive problems in caused by the banking sector in the past couple of years, it is considered vital for the health of the economy that bankers — and other industrialists — remain confident that the UK is a good place to do business and to make money.

It may be galling but there is probably a lot of truth in this*.

Without confidence, there is no future. It’s not worth investing or planning or working if you can’t be sure that you will get a decent return. That much is obvious but, as a scientist, I couldn’t help being a little envious of the concern the government so obviously feels about the confidence levels of consumers, bankers and industrialists.

Perhaps I’m being over-simplistic, but the message to scientists seems to be of an entirely different tone. Scientists in the UK must learn to do “more with less” in Vince Cable’s famous phrase. With funding levels dipping below 20% and likely to fall further as the value of the UK science spend declines in real terms, more and more scientists can expect to feel the pain and frustration of failure. The mood among my colleagues, leavened temporarily by the realisation that the cuts to the science budget were not as great as feared, remains grim. Confidence is slipping and, with each rejected grant proposal, it is only going to get harder to galvanise yourself to re-apply. Many of us are trying to balance teaching and research workloads, but I haven’t met anyone lately who claims to have achieved a sense of equilibrium.

Oddly, while the sin of mediocrity is easily forgiven (if not rewarded) in banking, scientists are being held to a different standard. It is of course quite right that applications for public funding of science are sifted rigorously — there is never a case for mediocrity (and of course many businesses feel the heat of competition every day) — but it is important also to ensure that the system works, and that the people within it have the confidence to carry on.

The government may be fretting about the confidence of consumers and bankers but I suspect their concern for the confidence of scientists is less intensely felt, and it is therefore in danger of ebbing away.

Confidence building has to work at many different levels (as recent posts by Athene and Jenny have made clear). The government might argue that the settlement achieved in the Comprehensive Spending Review was a solid vote of confidence in science. But I am thinking more of the scientific community. The Research Councils set themselves strategic priorities to address the nation’s technical ills — food security and ageing are two identified by the BBSRC for example — but why not make building the confidence of the scientific community a strategic goal? What measures might they take to help ensure continuity of funding in labs trying to negotiate the poker tables of the funding process (set to become even more tense in the life sciences now that the Wellcome Trust has decided to concentrate funding on fewer individuals).

But we should also be able to help ourselves. Staff support is important at faculty and departmental levels in our universities (though I suspect provision is uneven). In turn, lab-heads have a duty to support the people working with them, not just through technical training but with positive encouragement. I’m not sure how good I have been at this myself over the years, but I think I’m learning.

And as a community of scientists we can support each other more informally. I have often felt boosted in meetings and at conferences by the friendly nature of our shared interest in making sense of the world; the same is true — though the effect is somehow not as intense — of connections made through blogs and other social media. Across the country and across the world scientists are feeling the stress and pain of hard economic times. At the moment we may be in the gutter, but if we find ways to stick together, we can be more confident of glimpsing a hopeful star**.


*I am no economist – happy to be taken to task for the shallowness of my analysis.

**Apologies to Oscar Wilde.

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10 Responses to The Importance of Being Confident

  1. Rob Knop says:

    Confidence is slipping and, with each rejected grant proposal, it is only going to get harder to galvanise yourself to re-apply.

    That is so amazingly true. My productivity (however you measure that) in research at Vanderbilt sagged tremendously at Vanderbilt my last couple of years I was there because of my sense of impending doom resulting from multiple rejected grant proposals, and the knowledge that I probably wasn’t going to get funded in time to get tenure. A nasty “starvation” atmosphere is going to poison the motivation and ability to work of even the “top” folks who manage to get the grants (sometimes).

    I take your point about the scientific community supporting each other in their curiosity. However, that isn’t always my experience. I always felt that my funding troubles were sort of a “dirty secret”. (Yeah, I know that’s inconsistent with how openly I was blogging about them.) When I gave talks other places, people assumed I’d have “no trouble” getting tenure. Others in my department said things that made it clear they assumed everybody would be funded. If we carry the idea that “good people are successful and successful people are getting funding”, then admitting you’re having trouble getting funding is tantamount to admitting that you’re no good. And that just makes the whole despair situation even worse.

    (It may be that the funding woes for science in the UK now are severe enough that nobody thinks like that any more. Still, I suspect that there are those among the funded who believe that they are the funded because they are better than everybody else….)

  2. Stephen says:

    Thanks for your comment Rob. It is a tricky balance, and not such an easy issue to air without getting tainted by association. I’m sure there are people out there who don’t recognise my analysis — the well-funded elite, perhaps — but what has struck me this past six months is the spread of the grim mood about the state of funding support among people I’ve talked to all across the UK, even those who have been well supported in the past.

  3. stephenemoss says:

    I think Rob has a good point, which I take to mean that all too often that friendly community of scientists with whom you rub shoulders at meetings and conferences, is at least partly responsible for that run of failed grant applications. This can certainly undermine ones confidence but doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve suddenly become a bad scientist.

    I had a similar experience when, some 18 months ago, after 12 successive failed grant applications I made the decision to change field. I didn’t especially want to, but when your grants get the highest possible scores and still don’t get funded, the message is that whilst the science may be great, it just doesn’t fit with what the funding agencies want to support. As Stephen points out, the funding bodies have their strategic priorities. So, not feeling quite ready to hang up my pipettes, I ended two decades of blue skies basic research and switched to much more applied translational science. This has worked well in terms of getting grants, but it does feel like a bit of a sell-out.

  4. Stephen says:

    The difficulty as I see it is that for many scientists running modestly sized groups, there is no damping or buffering in the funding system. So a few unfunded grant applications (however high their score) can easily make life difficult. As you say Stephen, and despite the fact that the problem may currently be due to particularly acute economic troubles, it is difficult for that occurrence not to undermine self-confidence and motivation.

    To a degree, that’s no bad thing. In some cases it will be because the scientist in question has lost an edge or an appetite that previously were so very sharp.

    It sounds has if you have made a smart and pragmatic move to a new field but it’s interesting that you feel this to be a sell-out. I wonder what the opportunity cost of the blue-skies research that you will not now do amounts to? But perhaps it’s for the better — and that your work is now of more direct benefit to the public that funds it. These things, as we know, are hard to measure. (Thinking of blogging on this transition any time soon?)

    Throughout the Science is Vital Campaign, we had tried to make the case for blue-skies research. I think the case is there — Willetts seems to mention blue skies every time he pronounces on science these days — but I suspect it is always under threat (from the Treasury?) due to a short-termism that may be intrinsic to democratic governments. I had hoped that some of the generic governmental concern for consumer and business confidence might be diverted to the nation’s scientific enterprise. Altough, as I said in the post, confidence-building measures are needed at all levels, the govt could help set the tone.

  5. KristiV says:

    Scientists in the UK must learn to do “more with less”

    Our university system chancellor recently phrased this as “increasing efficiency and productivity”; he also presented it as a done deal, which goes well beyond the realm of optimism, quite honestly. Some cuts have been made already, and many more will follow – for the health science centers, the cuts will affect not just research and education, but patient care in the community as well. Does healthcare provision in the UK also suffer when research and education budgets are cut?

    Also, change one letter of “banker”, and you have a synonym. Cockney rhyming slang, I seem to recall. 😉

  6. Stephen says:

    I’m certainly in favour of efficiency and productivity Kristi. My argument would be — and I plan to develop this tomorrow — that the current system doesn’t necessarily promote excellence in the most effective way: there’s too much collateral damage, particularly in the university sector (where the demands of teaching are an added and uncontrolled burden on scientists’ time and effort).

    Health care and science are fairly well separated in terms of funding streams. In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) was relatively well protected in budgetary terms, though they are being asked for ‘efficiency savings’ and the system is about to be subjected to yet another massive administrative upheaval.

  7. stephenemoss says:

    It’s impossible to say what will be lost by my not doing blue skies research. Like many scientists my contribution to the sum of human knowledge will, come retirement day, probably be modest, but our basic studies did generate 5 patents, some of which have seeded our translational research. What frustrates, is the failure of the funding agencies (or perhaps government) to realise that unless we keep doing basic research we’ll soon run out of things to translate. Incidentally, it was one lucky slice of unconstrained funding a few years ago that funded the ‘fishing’ exercise that led to discoveries that now constitute the major part of our work. That fishing exercise would never have been supported through conventional grant applications. Perhaps it wasn’t a sell out. But it was certainly ‘adapt or die’ – a true Darwinian response to an adverse change in environment. I’ve thought of blogging on this – your prompting will spur me to do so.

  8. Stephen says:

    What’s interesting is that your adaptation involved a deliberate move to more applied research. This seems to be the inevitable outcome of the impact agenda. Last year I asked on RC mananger whether the introduction of impact statements on grants had improved the quality of the applications; the only difference they had noted was an increase in the numbers of applications devoted to applied science.

    That said, my experience on funding committees (at least at the initial — not the strategic — level) is that quality is still the thing that counts most when applications are considered. But the effect of impact is insidious, as people try to second guess what it is that the funders (acting on behalf of the govt) want.

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