The shove that dare not speak its name

The following is a commentary that has been published today (in a slightly edited form) in Chemistry and Industry.

Only the excellent need apply. Such is the message on research funding from nobelist Sir Paul Nurse, incoming president of the Royal Society. It is a message echoed by the Wellcome Trust — a major funder of the medical and life sciences in the UK — which has abandoned project and program grant support in favour of an investigator award scheme. This will offer generous long-term support to “the brightest researchers with the best ideas”. These grants will be a boon to anyone who gets one but Wellcome has acknowledged that they will be funding fewer individuals than under their previous arrangements. David Delpy, Chief Executive of the EPSRC appears to favour a similar approach.

Science funding in the UK is already highly competitive, with only around 20% of grant applications being awarded. This new emphasis on excellence seems likely to make the competition even more intense. Who could argue with the drive for excellence? Excellence is good. Excellence is right. But excellence can be hard to judge and no review process claims to be perfect. What happens to the excellent scientists who fail to win an investigator award? What about scientists who sacrifice some research effort for the sake of excellent teaching?

Although I am not privy to the internal machinations at the Wellcome Trust, I suspect the switch to investigator-based funding is due in part to the finding that their fellowship and program grants produced papers with more citations than shorter-term project grants. But while project grants may be worth less by this relatively crude estimation, that doesn’t mean that they are worthless. In fact, project grant research accumulated two-thirds the number of citations of Wellcome research supported by longer-term funding.

And yet, implicit in the drive to fund fewer ‘excellent’ scientists, is the calculation that anyone else is unworthy of support and can be shoved aside. The problem with this approach is that it does not take proper account of the heterogeneous ecosystem that supports scientific research in the UK.

No-one denies that competition is a good thing. Though most scientists are strongly self-motivated, we all benefit from that external driver. But the system of research funding is out of balance, especially in regard to university-based science. The stable, long-term funding that Wellcome — and perhaps the EPSRC — will offer through their investigator-based schemes will undoubtedly yield productivity boosts in winning labs. But the gains of a few will be won at the expense of those who lose out in the competition. The increased numbers of scientists refused funding by Wellcome will necessarily turn to the Research Councils, pressurizing a funding system that is already creaking, at a time when the UK science budget is declining. Success rates in Research Council applications, already low, will dip further; the work and time expended on unsuccessful applications will increase. It is a recipe for inefficiency.

These tremors in the funding landscape will be exacerbated by the Government’s plans for large increases in university tuition fees, a shift that places further strains on university-based academics because students will quite naturally expect more teaching and contact time in return for the higher price paid for their undergraduate education. I see little evidence that the implications of all these changes have been thought through in the upper echelons of government or funding agencies. In discussions with my colleagues over the past several months, I have met no-one who looks to the future with enthusiasm or optimism. I have met many with a diminished sense of satisfaction in their scientific work. It is becoming a treadmill.

All scientists, if they are to be productive and innovative, need the time to speculate, to think, to plan. But with funds increasingly concentrated in a few labs, the capacity of the remainder to generate the data needed to support grant applications or to take the experimental risks that push at the boundaries of knowledge will be lost as they are forced to spend more and more of their vanishing time chasing money.

Since there is recognized value in stable, long-term funding, why not offer it to the many and not just the few? A system that offers increased stability could well reap major productivity boosts. A scheme that would, for example, fund at least one research assistant or technician post for every tenured university scientist — perhaps to be reviewed or adjusted every 5-7 years according to productivity — would smooth out many of the stresses and strains of the current system. The wildly oscillating levels of funding that many labs have to cope with as a result of the uncertainties of the application process often prevents them from maintaining continuity of staff or effort that is so vital for the conduct of quality science. If that steady funding were to be offered in recognition of commitment to teaching, universities would do a better job of balancing the demands on their staff.

Competition is good and valuable, but not at the expense of everything else. It is important to remember that the UK scientific enterprise consists of more than just the research done in the very top labs, and that science is done by men and women who appreciate being valued and supported.

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42 Responses to The shove that dare not speak its name

  1. Austin says:

    Absolutely, Stephen.

    And you’ll have to forgive me for “re-plugging” my riposte to Paul Nurse from back in May, “Funding the elite is not the real problem”, which has similar themes.

    The thing that gets me most depressed is what you refer to in your 4th paragraph about how the proposals ignore, and will probably do great damage to, the “research ecosystem”. As I wrote in May:

    “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.”

  2. KJHaxton says:

    One thing that is often lost in these discussions is the quantity of funding necessary to sustain a research programme. I don’t need many hundreds of thousands, and indeed with my interests in teaching, I don’t intend to have a huge research group, but I do need a pair of hands other than my own to work in the lab. If I had money to pay a PhD student per year, 1 undergrad summer student and a small consumables budget, that would be adequate and I’d probably be significantly less stressed about acquiring funding and therefor more functional across the board! I love the idea of a research assistant per academic per year.
    I will never compete with these huge, high achieving groups. That I can accept, what I cannot accept is the pulling up of the drawbridge by the funding bodies to exclude institutions/investigators because they do not fit historic and narrowly defined criteria of excellence. The last RAE sought to reward excellence wherever it is found, yet EPSRC chose to remove research studentships from standard grants, thus denying some excellent people a route for training students because they aren’t within a doctoral training centre [someone jump in if I misinterpret the situation please]. I accept that things are difficult at the moment but a better response is more, low level support, not rewarding those who are already superstars.

  3. Stephen says:

    Thanks for your comments Austin and Katherine. I should have linked directly to your piece Austin, so am glad of the reminder.

    I think there is support out there for the mixed economy approach to funding but it would be good to see how widespread it is. Among funders this approach seems to have lost ground in the push for economic impact and metric-based ‘excellence’.

  4. Paul Driscoll says:

    It would be nice to know if any of these agencies have published an evidence base for their change of tack. My impression is that we risk moving towards the sort of scientific baronetcies (word?) that I have seen in other countries, and where the long-serving and high qualiied ‘lieutenants’ (surfs?) disappear into anonymity. (Those in the bioloigical NMR field will know to whom I refer.)

  5. Paul Driscoll says:

    Doh! Serf, not surf.

  6. Stephen says:

    The only analysis I know of is that performed by the Wellcome Trust, which I linked to above. The key paragraph (with my emphasis) is:

    “We were also interested to ask whether different types of funding were associated with different qualities of output. We stratified the cohort of publications funded by the Wellcome Trust as project grants (typically three years funding for one or two posts plus running costs), programme grants (typically five years funding for four to six posts plus running costs) or fellowships (typically salary support for the principal investigator for three to five years associated with running costs and variable numbers of additional posts). The outputs linked to project grants were cited significantly less frequently than those linked to programme and fellowship grants. This is a potentially important finding that we will dissect further in future studies.”

    This was published in mid-2009 and I haven’t yet found any ‘further studies’. I’m guessing/hoping there may be more of this kind of analysis – maybe others know where to find them in the public domain?

    I gather from the grapevine (though would be glad of confirmation) that the WT’s new direction was hotly debated internally. In my view their change of tack is going to have huge repercussions. I agree there are enormous risks — and likely costs — in such a single-minded approach. I’d welcome it of someone wanted to make the case for this kind of concentrated funding.

  7. Steve Caplan says:


    It seems to me that whatever side of the pond you are on–or anywhere else for that matter–the policy people at the funding institutions always seem to think that changing the system is the way to go–when really, in most cases, “all” that’s lacking to set things right is more investment in science.

  8. Stephen, the obvious confounding factor with the Wellcome analysis is that to be applying for a Programme Grant you have to be an established “Player” with a decade plus in the biz leading your own lab. You are thus intrinsically far better known to the rest of the biz than the lowlier and more junior people who are getting project grants. You will therefore get cited more often, for all sorts of reasons, of which “publishing better work” would only be one putative one.

    In essence, what the analysis is doing is equating “Ncitations” to “usefulness and/or innovativeness and/or importance”. Hmmm (!).

    PS Do they mention what was the “paper/£ return” for the two types of grant? That is another rather relevant factor.

  9. Stephen says:

    Steve – funding is certainly a problem – but my difficulty in this case is with the allocation mechanism which seems to me out of touch with the needs of a healthy research base – one that has a major presence in universities.

    Austin – there are certain reservations expressed (as in the passage that I quoted above). The initial aim of the study was not to analyse value for money but rather “To compare expert assessment with bibliometric indicators as tools to assess the quality and importance of scientific research papers.”

    However, it’s a short step from here to trying to evaluate bang for research buck spent (no bad thing for any funding organisation). But, again, the question is exactly how is the effectiveness of the research base (especially one that is so heterogeneous) to be assessed. Numbers of citations is a starting point but there are many additional factors to consider. I guess the WT (and possibly other agencies) have looked at this in more detail than is published but I don’t know.

    It would be healthy for there to be a wider discussion of the funding mechanisms (and how these impact on not just research, but teaching also).

  10. alice says:

    What do you think of the view that argues we fund too many PhDs and should, instead, balance the funding out to support less people, but through more stable scientific careers?

    • Steve Caplan says:


      I didn’t do a good job explaining what I meant–it seems that in times of funding crisis, the agencies are always looking for some magic way to better allocate the money, or alternatively (as per the NIH example) a new way to have grants reviewed, etc. I think that if there wasn’t such funding pressure, agenices like the Wellcome Trust and others wouldn’t be so keen to search for new (and poorly thoought-out) ways to spend what they have available.


      I would argue that yes, there is inflation in the number of PhDs, but that despite the eventual attrition of many from experimental/laboratory and/or theoretical science, this is still a great investment for society. I agree with you Stephen that a mechanism for supporting non-PI scientists as stable investigators is a great idea–something that is sorely in need in the US.

      • Stephen says:

        Steve – OK, fair enough – I see what you mean – and I agree there is this tendency. For example, the UK govt’s focus on ‘more for less’ is partly a simple-minded exhortation to live with the cuts and somehow still produce the same level of work. But I’m not sure that Wellcome’s change of funding policy is in response to the current economic situation, though I reckon they suppose that a concentration on fewer, better scientists will give them more bang for their buck.

        Alice – that’s an important and related question (I’m surprised Jenny hasn’t been on the case already). There is a larger problem of scientific careers – at PhD and postdoctoral level – due to the fact that there are fewer PI positions than people with career aspirations.

        For what it’s worth, I agree with Steve’s comment and don’t think that some over-supply of PhD places is necessarily a bad thing, as long as people are warned up front that a PhD is no guarantor of a future career. I would also advocate PhD training as a valuable prelude to many other analytical careers.

        For those who step onto the postodc ladder, the problem is perhaps more acute since that is (in most cases) a move aimed at some kind of permanent career as a scientist. My proposal – to create positions associated with PIs – could conceivably ameliorate the plight of the postdoc by creating a niche for people who love doing science, are good at it and yet have no real aspiration to lead their own group. Such positions are found at some research institutes but are less common in universities in my experience. People in these positions could provide the continuity that so many groups crave (and would be enhanced by!).

        • Steve Caplan says:

          “For those who step onto the postodc ladder,…”

          I agree with that 100%. It is remarkable how there are so many awards, grants, fellowships etc.–all aimed at the goal of moving a person along the “scientist-food-chain”. But you are correct–there are so many people who would be content to do first rate science in a lab setting without running a lab and all the ‘extras’ that come with it. I myself know many people who would like nothing better. Yet, as you say, for the most part there is no mechanism for keeping these great people in science. the only way seems to be calling them “senior post-docs”, “glorified technicians”, etc.

          At the NIH intramural program, there is a “Staff Scientist” position available for some investigators, and these researchers are often the most productive and beneficial scientists that a lab could possibly hope for.

          • Stephen says:

            Yes – more of these in university labs could be a real boon.

          • katrine says:

            I could’t agree more on the value of funding “senior post docs” to create continuity and boost productivity through not having to reinvent the weel every time there is turnover in staff. However, as well as finding the funding for this, there also needs to be a significant shift in culture. Although these people are valued by their PI, collaborators and other immediate suroundings they are often frowned upon in grant reviews and job interviews: ” staying that amount of time with the same research group was a bad career choice”, ” this person ought to move to different labs more often”. Nevermind that they present impressive publication lists and work in successfull groups the need for change and ambition must be prioritised.

          • Stephen says:

            Thanks for your comment Katrine – you raise a significant point. The relentless quest for excellence has somehow to be wedded to concern for career paths in science at every level. The role of senior postdocs has long been one of the most difficult since, in the long run, the system seems to penalise those who stick with the same lab. I’d like to see the numbers but I have the impression that such positions are easier to sustain within research institutes, perhaps because the Director holds the budget and recognises the value of the appointment better than a grant committee?

  11. Great post Stephen!
    as a PI fighting for funding I really feel this pain – on a side note I read this link today about Wellcome funding ( at 1 million! ) a drama troupe to help people discuss biomedical research
    using drama and the internet:

    This really depressed me, while I believe science com is so important – this just seems like a kick in the face from Wellcome who are funding more and more elitist people and now funding THIS which what seems to me at the expense of real science.

    maybe it is helpful, who knows? But are we getting people to discuss research we can’t even afford to do? Are there even any stats on if this is helpful?

    This probably sounds very bitter I know, but in the age of more and more people (as both you and Austin have said) fighting for a tiny amount of money its hard to stomach things like this even though I think science communication should be funded but wouldn’t their money be better spent on teaching me, for instance, to communicate better?

    • Stephen says:

      @Girl, Interruping:

      I’m not sure I agree with your side-note – though sympathise with the frustration (!) — I don’t know the work of the theatre company mentioned so can’t really comment. The £1m is to be spent over 5 yrs and this is a tiny fraction of the WT budget. The aim is to stimulate a public debate about biomedical issues which is no bad thing; I’ll wager that there is a component built into the application to attempt to measure its efficacy.

      • I think you are right and I am just being a bit too frustrated – I just think 1 million is enough to run a group off for 5 years, though be it small.
        but your point is correct, in the grand scheme of things its not that much

        • cromercrox says:

          Oh, I don’t know, I think G,I was right the first time. At times like this bodies should probably concentrate on their core activities and cut funding for a lot of luvvies prancing around pretending to be ribosomes. But I’m generally against subsidies for the arts anyway. In my day we had to make our own entertainment.

          • Stephen says:

            Well, though I take the opposite view and do support some subsidy of the arts, I am wary of certain sci-art ‘fusions’, for want of a better name. I’ve seen some awful crimes against art that were committed in the name of science. In the present case, I’ll reserve judgement since I’m not up on the details.

          • hmm – I don’t know if I am or not, my opinion varies (obviously)
            I actually support art funding, and think the arts are a good thing – but given my choice I would rather go see Hamlet than a play about ribosomes ….
            and I think sci com money could better be spent on teaching scientists to do a better job, rather than this –
            but I think there is a bit healthy hunk of me just being well crusty about funding ….

      • Frank says:

        Stephen – I agree it is worth funding this kind of thing. We shouldn’t assume that everyone reacts the same way or learns the same way. Also just as in science it is difficult to say which project will succeed and which will fail, so with artistic endeavour.

        We need to fund edgy projects or we’ll end up funding only boring middle of the road ventures.

        • Stephen says:

          Define edgy.

          I’m happy with any science/arts project so long as it isn’t pointless and has some sort of purchase with the public.

    • Wellcome has always supported both History of Science and Science communication work as well as frontline science. I think this is a good thing. I haven’t always agreed with their decisions but science drama does reach a different audience and having seen several Y Touring productions on ethical and societal implications of science I think they’ll make very worthwhile use of this money.

      • Stephen says:

        I’m with you Chris – these are both important areas that should not be neglected, even in times of scarcity.

  12. Tideliar says:

    Everytime I contemplate pciking up sticks and coming home, I reminded why i left and now serve another master. Albeit one that can be fiskle, yet has deeper pockets to start with…

  13. Stephen says:

    Oh no, I’ve contributed to the brain drain…

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      My brain drained out of the UK, but into Canada, which has a brain drain of its own (it flows south). So am I part of the problem, or part of the solution? 🙂

  14. William Cullerne Bown says:

    Is the essence of the change here that the burden for making lots of key decisions is being shifted from the funder to the department. In future, you’ll need to be in the right place to have easy access to research funding. Hence competition for posts in those places will intensify and the role of departments in talent spotting will become more important.

    • Stephen says:

      That’s already happened thanks to the RAE but perhaps it will intensify as research funds are concentrated on fewer individuals. But I don’t yet see how it will play out in universities in relation to the increased demands from students – and the uncertainty in university viability under the new funding arrangements.

      You probably know better than me but this situation seems to cry out for joined up thinking. If we value the science done and taught in universities, we’ve got to make sure that the system works effectively and efficiently. The chase for funds is wasting more and more time from what I can see. No-one expects to be immune from competition, but we can hope for a less frustrating working life.

    • That would be true if the Department/University had a significant amount of money to dish out to individual PIs/projects, William – but they don’t, though there are more subtle things that happen that support your thesis a bit. Might put some of them on a post later.

      I guess if more and more “underpinning” funding to Univs/Depts is directed via formulae highly sensitive to “research power” (basically size of research Dept) then it will exacerbate any trend in the direction you indicate. And if only those people are able to apply for grants…

      But anyway, at the moment the only place you can really get a postdoc/ PhD student/ technician is via a grant, not via your Dept. With a very few exceptions.

      BTW, my experience has been that “talent spotting” is a relatively rare talent among Deptl bosses. Some very successful people I have come across have been talent spotters and prepared to back their judgements. But I would say that they are more the exception than the rule. I have heard about at least as many HoDs/appointment cttes that basically wanted to use some kind of formula / box-ticking approach to decide who to back, or to hire. Or, more kindly, a lot of people, especially in committees, want the decision to be so obvious that they won’t have to go out on any kind of limb. So it is easier to say:

      “the person to be hired must have a pedigree from a well-known lab, and have got this or that fellowship, and have published this many papers in these journals”

      – and then count up the points.

      • Stephen says:

        More funds allocated to departments explicitly for research might be one way to help fill in some of the more troublesome troughs in research funding and give the continuity that many would benefit from. Arguably, departments should be able to use such monies to ensure they are getting the best out of their staff. They operate at the sufficiently local level to know individual needs.

        • I think that’s right, Stephen. But since all these things are ways of rationing budgets, it would have to be at the expense of other things.

          Apologies if I have dragged us away from the discussion of investigator-driven funding!

          • Stephen says:

            No worries William – I think the topic is broad enough to cope since these funding changes have very wide repercussions.

  15. Mark says:

    Hi Stephen. Great analysis of the current predicament. I see a huge swathe of middle career scientists, who should be reaching the most productive and important points in their research careers, failing to attract funding. It seems funding for the new or extremely prestigious will leave the vast majority without anything.
    If you were to assess at what point in a ‘superstar’ scientists’ career did they achieve their most significant results, I bet most would be in the early to middle part of their career at a point when programme grants and larger levels of funding were a pipe dream. I believe that by concentrating funds in this area the funding agencies will push a large proportion of the innovative superstars of the future out of the country or out of science – however they may well end up funding some big names.

  16. Stephen says:

    Thanks for the comment Mark – and welcome to Occam’s Typewriter.

    You could be right about the knock-on effect on younger researchers. In their defence, Wellcome might argue that their New Investigator Awards will address the needs of the brightest young things in the scientific firmament. But the problem remains that the focus on fewer researchers is going to choke off talent.

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