Science: the bargain for funding

On the Guardian web-site today you will find a piece by myself and Imran Khan of CaSE which is a response to an attack on scientists for striking a faustian bargain with business.

Guardian Article


The attack was written by Ananyo Bhattacharya, who is the chief online editor for Nature and, funnily enough, a former PhD student of mine. We’re still good friends, by the way! The argument revolves largely around the impact of the impact agenda that the research councils have rolled out, presumably in response to demands from their — and our — political masters.

Ananyo was passionate in his contention that the pendulum has swung too far, that scientists have lost the sense of the deep worth of blue-skies research. Imran and I are circumspect about that. For sure, the impact agenda has perturbed the system. But in a democratic society, we argue that it is reasonable for scientists to take some account of political realities.

I’m unsure as yet how much clarification of the deeper issues has been made here. Our critique has already been criticised. I’m confident there is more common ground than a speed-reading of the two articles would suggest. Maybe this is just another one of those regular eruptions of the tension between public policy and the intrinsic values of science. I don’t know. But if there is a resolution to this debate, I would dearly like to find it.

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43 Responses to Science: the bargain for funding

  1. stephenemoss says:

    The pendulum has certainly swung too far towards applied research, but after several (friendly) exchanges with Ananyo on Twitter today, I sense that the scientists to whom he refers are not necessarily those of us at the coal face, but those sitting at the top of the research councils. It would certainly seem harsh to point an accusing finger at the many basic scientists who would love to continue their blue skies activities, but see their funding sources increasingly directed toward applied research.

    The need for scientists to be accountable to the tax payer, which is the focus of yours and Imran’s response, seems to address a separate (though important) issue. Why should basic research be less valuable or justifiable than applied research? I think I must be missing something.

    • Stephen says:

      I don’t see the issues as entirely separate because the question of accountability inevitably brings up the matter of what it is the funders expect scientists to do. And there’s no easy of straight answer to that one. To my mind it will be a mix of curiosity-driven work and work that is more goal-directed (which often segues into tech development, not science). The boundaries are blurry.

      I noticed on Twitter that you suspect the RC chiefs of being too close to government and dancing to their tune. I share some of those concerns — but who knows what goes on behind closed doors. If we are worried about that, then it is for the scientific community to make sure that these chiefs get the message from the shop-floor about how we want to see things done. Tension is perhaps inevitable. I’ve seen it in the BBSRC and the EPSRC’s difficulties, which Ananyo dwelt on, were splashed all over the papers. Such arguments will hopefully more scientists to get involved in the discussion.

  2. Nico says:

    In relation to this, I have found last week’s In Our Time on conductors (here) to be very instructive. The first properties of superconductors (which apparently ties in with semi-conductors, not my area at all so apologies for the errors) were identified around 1911, but it wasn’t until the 50s that this could be put into practice, and it is only now, 100 years later, that some applications are being rolled out to consumers (fiber optics being one of them).

    The blue-sky research was essential then, and it is now. Although like you say Stephen, it is probably a good idea to have some sort of accountability. This is quite tricky to assess though, even in the 50s the superconductors researchers would never have imagined MRIs, they would have asked for more money otherwise! However maybe their grant review panel would have thought they were too ambitious/fantastical and turned down the proposal…

    • Mike says:

      Nico – I think you’re coming close to answering the final statement in Stephen’s post:

      Can we meaningfully measure the impact of impact?

      Well, we can try. We can suggest the government should set up a Review panel to assess the ability of impact statements to successfully predict the impact of a funded project?

      I rather suspect those impact statements that do a good job of predicting project outcomes do so because the outcomes are already rather clear at the time of submitting a proposal. This would unfortunately be a trivial finding, and does nothing to reflect the massive importance of long-term unknown effects in all branches of science and technology.

      So, ehhhh, back to square one?

      • Stephen says:

        Ha – yes it has occurred to me to one day ask the research councils to assess the impact of their impact policy — in quantifiable terms.

        You could then ask the government to assess the impact of it’s funding policies. But then we already have a mechanism for testing the efficacy politicians. They’re called elections. 😉

    • Stephen says:

      Nico – Thanks for pointing out that episode of IOT – must give it a listen (though a subscriber to the podcast, I’m way behind).

      We can always find interesting examples of discoveries paying off in unexpected ways; I agree with Ananyo that this is one of the valuable fruits of research. But the trick is to keep selling that to the government of the day as a justification for future funding. I’m not saying we have to give in to the impact agenda wholesale but we do need to be aware that there are many competing claims on government funds — always more than are affordable — so we have to be every ready to make the case.

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    A very important debate, to be sure. Of course I can’t really comment on the situation in the UK–despite probably being better informed than most American scientists (thanks to reading OT blogs!), it’s still too hard for me to judge what’s going on.

    What I can say is that from my own limited perspective, here in the US the pendulum HAS swung too far towards applied (ie., “Translational”) science. I don’t think that there’s any way I could “quantify” or support this contention except by spouting my own personal views. However, to me it seems that the context of “Blue Skies Science” as you call it has largely been lost here.

    I think it’s easy for the public to underestimate how crucial basic science really is. On the one hand, people have begun to understand “the long haul” with regards to environmental issues, recycling, global warming. These are all issues that don’t cause immediate benefit, yet the public generally seems to understand the ramifications for the long long-term. But the campaign for immediate cures to diseases, and pushing too many researchers towards highly applied research will, in my view, ultimately slow clinical advances.

    • Stephen says:

      I agree if we let it swing too far to applied work, performance may well suffer. But equally we have to be transparent about making the case for curiosity-driven research.

      Back in 2010, during the Science is Vital campaign, I tried my best to make the case to my (conservative) MP. As you will see if you can read a rather long letter, it’s complicated. The argument cannot be boiled down to a few easy soundbites. And there are problems with the evidence base.

  4. Laurence Cox says:

    If you want to influence at least one coalition Government Party’s policies on science, Julian Huppert (MP for Cambridge), a research scientist before he became an MP, is asking what should be included in a Science Policy document.
    The policy document will cover a range of issues, including but not limited to:

    a.. Money – how it is allocated, and funding sources, and how to attract more investment.
    b.. People – how to provide the right skills from school through to postgrad education, career structures, suitable immigration policies, and how to ensure gender/socioeconomic balances.
    c.. Science in policy – how government and parliament should utilise science and evidence, what role government should play in managing what research is carried out, and the correct balance between pure and applied work.
    I would be grateful for your thoughts on what principles and policies you feel we should include in this updated document. I have set up the email address – please send any ideas you have there.

    I’ve already promoted OT to him, but it wouldn’t harm if some of the bloggers here gave him their opinions directly.

    • Stephen says:

      Hey Laurence – welcome to the blog!

      Thanks for the tip-off. I’d hope that since Julian is good pals with Evan Harris, my co vice-chair of the Science is Vital campaign, he’s already been well briefed on the arguments for funding and for improved career structures for junior scientists (details on the web-site).

      Those are good but hard questions he’s asking, as the present debate shows. The posts I’ve written on the questions of funding for science are tagged with ‘scienceisvital’ and can be found here. I imagine a busy MP is probably looking for a crisp synopsis but that’s beyond my powers right now.

  5. Stephen says:

    And, while Im pondering this discussion further, can I point you to an article (PDF) that is very pertinent to this debate. It was pointed out to me by Britt Holbrook (the critic alluded to in my post above) and provides a thoughtful examination, in the US context, of the development of the public funding model for science after WWII. I didn’t agree with al of it but found the piece quite insightful.

    • Just for the sake of clarification, although I did offer a criticism of your and Khan’s article, I don’t fancy myself a ‘critic’. 😉

      I am, however, searching for a way to get beyond the idea of a basic-applied research dichotomy. I think it has a pernicious influence on collegiality among researchers, in part because there is a prejudice in favor of so-called ‘basic’ research. It’s somehow supposed to be both intellectually cleaner and more rigorous than so-called ‘applied’ research.

      In fact, so-called ‘applied’ researchers often react by making their own research more ‘rigorous’ — that is, coming up with a theoretical account of how ‘applied’ research is really important (at least, we do that in philosophy, where applied philosophy is more a theoretical discussion of applied philosophy among applied philosophers than anything else).

      The other problem I see with the dichotomy is that it is horrible for policy making. More on this later ….

  6. I wrote a blog a couple of years back about the pure vs applied research debate, and some of the history. Sadly the excellent original article that I was discussing, by Prof Tim Biscoe, isn’t online any more. One of his points, deriving from the well-known work of Comroe and Dripps in the 70s, was that advances in medicine and the biosciences were far less likely to be predictably derived from consciously applied research than was the case in more intrinsically applied fields such as engineering.

    There is another interesting article looking at some historical cases here.

  7. John the Plumber says:

    The situation in the UK Steve seems accurately summed by Stephen and Imran’s reporting in their ‘piece’ that:
    . “…the chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council was happy to publicly affirm that, when its panels of scientists meet to decide on grant awards, the quality of the science therein is taken as the most important criterion for success. Impact statements assessing future potential are only considered in the case of a tie-break between two applications of equal scientific merit.”

    This means that when two applications of equal scientific merit are on offer, one or the other is definitely going to lose out – to and for want of money.

    But why?

    Presumably James Watt spent much time at home sat by the kitchen fire watching the kettle boil. I doubt he took foreign holidays. – Darwin had the wealth of his industrialist in-laws behind him leading to his round the world trip, but it was hardly a holiday by all accounts. Frank Whittle had a fairly ordinary start helping his father in his piston ring workshop before joining the R.A.F and eventually setting up on his own to build his jet engine. – In those days the scientist held his own purse strings. If he took a holiday that came out of the purse – but I’ll bet that the science came before the holiday.

    It strikes me that many people holding the country’s purse strings now place more importance on jet-setting holiday life-styles along with the amassing of bulging bank accounts to ensure they can fashionably continue to do so, with thought only for profit in pursuit of more – holidays and profit – than science.

    In this way, money vanishes in vapour trails – with scarce left – for science or much else for that matter.

    I only hope Stephen’s efforts, along with those of others, can influence those at the top before we slowly sink back into the dark ages.

    Of course I’m only a plumber so what do I know of these things.

    • Stephen says:

      I don’t think laziness is the problem here. Every academic I know is working flat out!

      • John the Plumber says:

        In my tin pot fashion, I attempted to point out the changing values of the world. – Sience and its hardworking scientsts still value science. – The rest of the world seems to value rather more frivolus things – and profit above all, – The names Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie were once familiar to all – now its Posh and Becks.

        Bemoaning banker’s bonuses is a bit overplayed – but how many bankers would jet to the Caribean before they thought of donating the odd spare million to science.

  8. I can understand why people think that the “pendulum has certainly swung too far towards applied research” but the trouble is this isn’t actually true. Take a look at the plot on p15 of the RS “Scientific Century” report, which shows that the proportion of government science spending which went on basic research increased from a bit more than 20% in 1986 to more than 40% in 2005. A very striking related statistic is highlighted in the recent CIHE report on the UK R&D landscape, which shows that over the last 20 years the proportion of the UK research effort (including both government and industry) carried out in universities has more or less doubled, from 15% to 30% or so.

    So what’s happened is that the places where applied research has traditionally been carried out – in industrial labs and those government labs doing strategic science – have atrophied. The idea that the place of the big corporate laboratories that we’ve seen wither away would be taken by nimble VC backed start-ups hasn’t been realised. The causes for this probably include privatisation (for example the privatisation of the energy industry has meant a massive decrease in applied energy research, at a time when this is needed more than ever), and the fact that financial deregulation has meant that there have been other opportunities to extract larger short-term gains from capital than doing R&D.

    The result of all this is that research in the university sector, as the only part of the overall R&D enterprise that is still flourishing, finds itself exposed to higher expectations to deliver economic growth.

    (Of course, there’s lots one could say about whether the distinction between “applied” research and “basic” research is as meaningful or as helpful as some assume – here’s something I wrote earlier about this “On pure science, applied science, and technology”.)

    • Stephen says:

      Took me a while to get round to this – but thanks for the informed comment and the link to your earlier article: a very exposition.

  9. Paul Nurse briefly addressed these problems about lack of industrial R+D in the Dimbleby Lecture last night (and I’m pleased to see the full transcript is indeed now up, as I had asked of the Royal Society). He said

    The UK spends 1.8% of GDP on research and development, the Americans 2.9%, the South Koreans 3.7%. And we are dropping down International league tables for the production of patents.

    An even greater problem is spend by industry in the UK on research and development, at present only 0.8% of GDP, less than half of the percentage spent in the US and Germany. This low level of investment in science from industry, means it lacks the research capacity and knowledge to reach out and exploit the scientific knowledge being produced.

    I hope David Willetts and the captains of industry who were there (although actually I didn’t spot any) were listening.

    As for Laurence’s point about Julian Huppert looking for comments to feed into Lib-Dem Science policy, some of us OT bloggers are indeed in this loop (Julian is my MP as well as an ex-colleague from Cambridge), but the deadline is unfortunately today, at least allegedly. I for one have been working flat out (as Stephen rightly says academics do) and have so far not managed to send him my thoughts. Maybe I’ll try for an extension, just as with homework.

    • John the Plumber says:

      Sorry Athene, you read me wrong, down to inadequacies in my writing skills. Scientists work very hard with little finance to back their work. Many of the rest of the populace seem to to put similar effort into wasting money. I was born in a house with no bathroom, just an outside loo – now people ahve five bathrooms with goldplated fittings. I simply think that much of the ‘community chest’ is flushed down the loo one way or another.

      The public – that’s me – are fed glorious programmes rejoicing in the wonders of science – they are not made aware of its poverty. – I wish you all success in your efforts to channel public and industrial funding in the direction of science – I just feel that the captains ofstate and industry would rather have six bathrooms.

      Aztec (or was it Inca) civilisation began with an interest in sun water trees and fruit. Over a thousand years it culminated in vast courtyards – the odd pyramid thrown in for good measure – venue of the sacred ballgame. – Then the civilation vanished. – Funnily enough the plan of one particular temple complex is the spitting image of the new Wembly Arena.

      Bacup where I live is down for preservation as a perfect example of a mill town. The problem is though, they have knocked nearly all the mills down. Undaunted the local powers that be promote it as a tourist attraction. No doubt the queue at the job-centre – or is it now job-centre plus – I lose track – is a stopping point on the guided tour.

      It all smacks to me of fiddling while Rome burns. (No allusion to bankers politicians etc. is intended here – the picture is much bigger than that.)

  10. Paul says:

    There are two issues of concern. One is the recent introduction of ‘pathways to impact’. Applicants have to write an Impact Summary that “should cover potential economic and societal impacts.” See
    for a long list of links on this.
    I can’t speak for BBSRC, but for EPSRC it is certainly NOT the case that impact statements are only used as tie-breaks.

    The second issue is that research councils are increasingly restricting research applications to particular subject areas. This is referred to as “shaping capability”. This means that EPSRC fellowships are no longer available except in certain areas, and it is not clear who decides what these areas are and on what basis. See
    for links, in particular the recent letter to the Telegraph from a long list of scientists.

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  12. Might be of interest here. Bradley Voytek has started a list of basic research projects that have led to major scientific breakthroughs and unexpected applications. Apparently, the US House Majority Leader has a web site (‘YouCut’) encouraging citizens to report any NSF grants they think are a waste of tax dollars. So the list is an attempt to gather ammunition against that sort of initiative.

    Lucky Sarah Palin isn’t making funding decisions if her thoughts on Drosophila research are anything to go by:
    “Sometimes these dollars they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France, I kid you not.”

    • Stephen Moss says:

      Irene – in Palin’s case I suspect that the fruit fly is too advanced to be a suitable model organism.

    • Stephen says:

      Bradley Voytek’s list is a start. It echoes a similar effort made by Tim Biscoe (whose article mentioned in this comment by Austin above.

      Difficult to know how convincing such lists are. Austin also mentions an attempt by Comroe and Dripps to retrospectively assess the importance of blue-skies research to major clinical developments – but his link is to a critique of their paper which makes some interesting points about the difficulties of making such assessments. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t even try, just that it’s difficult to get far beyond the realm of anecdote.

  13. Sorry, link to Bradley Voytek’s list above is broken, here it is

  14. Give up! Not sure why link doesn’t go to the right page (unless it’s me and Friday afternoon), so here’s the full URL

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  16. I said I would add a comment detailing why studies of the Comroe/Dripps type (the Comroe/Dripps study is very similar to the approach of the famous NSF-funded TRACES project of the early 70s) have long been discredited in the research community that studies the relationship between science and innovation but in fact the RIchard Smith article to which Austin links above already anticipates most of those criticisms. So, leaving aside the many problems with the design and implementation of such studies I will move onto the fundamental criticism: that such studies are already designed with an implied model of the relationship between basic research and innovations (new or improved treatments, in this case) in mind.

    Comroe & Dripps, like Project TRACES before them, model research as a simple process which has one output, new knowledge. Knowledge is treated as information, something which is easily codified and quickly transmitted. Comroe & Dripps themselves focus on scientific publications, so research is modelled as a process which produces scientific publications.

    The problem is that publications are not the only output of the research process (and perhaps this is especially the case in biomedical research). Rather than just tracing back the connections between discoveries/publications and an innovation, real empirical case histories of innovations emphasise the very important role played by what the chemist Michael Polanyi called the ‘tacit dimension’ of knowledge. Even the most fundamental research has an irreducible tacit component. Not everything can be written down in a paper (if it could be, scientific life would be very different!). Knowledge with a tacit component is typically ‘sticky’. It does not flow freely and can in fact be hard to transmit.

    Empirical studies have also shown that research has other important ‘outputs’ in addition to new knowledge, most notably in “human capital” – the stock of highly-skilled researchers (with access to tacit knowledge) – and in new techniques or technologies developed in order to advance the research.

    Most notably, such studies suggest that a very important role of public spending on research is to underpin the ‘absorptive capacity’ of a national research and innovation “system” – best thought of as an entry ticket used to access leading edge global science but also, of course, the ability to weigh up and use that knowledge.

    Thus Comroe/Dripps type studies simultaneously systematically over-state the direct role of “basic” research in driving innovation because of biases in their design, whilst at the same time completely ignoring the less direct but vital ways in which research underpins well-perfoming national and global “systems”.

    For better or for worse, then, the stable scientific consensus in this area is that – no matter how deeply ingrained this view is in all of us – it is a mistake to see “basic” research as the driving force of innovation. Of course sometimes investigator-driven research motivated by curiousity about fundamental questions does lead directly to innovations – but this is not a linear relationship (and thus is spectacularly unhelpful in working out how to make research funding decisions). The less direct roles of “basic” research are almost certainly much more important, and easier to demonstrate, and yet they bizarrely receive no attention when we debate science funding.

    The best accessible summary of the scientific consensus amongst economists, historians and other social scientists who study the relationship between science and innovation is “Talent, not Technology” (PDF).

    Probably the best recent scholarly review of the consensus is from the same authors, in Research Policy (PDF).

    • Stephen says:

      Many thanks for such a detailed and insightful comment Kieron. I only realised by clicking on it that the paper in your last link is the famous (!) Salter and Martin from 2001, which I read back in 2010 thanks, I believe, to a steer from you.

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