Scientists need to ask ‘important’ questions – oh and stop “whingeing”

Scientists need to ask ‘important’ questions – oh and stop “whingeing”

Science question time on Feb 16th – put on by the Biochemical Society, CaSE (Campaign for Science and Engineering) and the good folks from Imperial College was, I thought, an excellent event. An invigorating panel loaded with a large variety of thought provoking questions. Sophie Scott was in my opinion the star of the panel with thoughtful and well-balanced comments and answers.

Mark Walport , Director of the Wellcome Trust, on the other hand, spent a fair proportion of his ‘air time’ telling scientists to ‘stop whingeing’, saying that scientists must ask ‘important’ questions – and defending, in a nutshell, an ‘excellence’ based structure of science research funding where less people are given more money. This wouldn’t lead to less jobs, he argued, but rather more focused work on ‘important’ questions. I am of course paraphrasing, Walport also had some good things to say, which I think were somehwat contradictory to his paraphrased statements above.

I have a lot to say about this but I will try to be brief

1 – I am so very tired of being hearing ‘scientists need to stop whingeing’ and the implication that ‘scientists’ are just lazy and not working on ‘important’ questions but rather as Walport suggested that lots of scientists sit around and work on non-important, esoteric, navel-gazing type of questions which are a waste of everyone’s time.

First of all this is hard to prove in any real sense, if you want to try and make a statement about this in terms of funding (who gets funded and who doesn’t), this doesn’t work so well. As almost everyone that writes grants is aware, you write a significant larger number of grants than you ever get funded for. Does this necessarily mean that your question isn’t important? but I will say more about this in a minute…

This attitude really bothers me. And its not just Walport (others, such as Vince Cable who said most reserach in the UK is ‘not excellent’ relatively recently)

Stop whingeing and get on with it
What bothers me about this is that it is just a throw-away thing to say, and it instills anger in people trying to do research, telling a group of educated people to shut up and do your job publicly only increases hostility between the people who are ‘in charge’ (of funding, of decisions, of whatever) and the people doing the science – Apparently pyschology isn’t an ‘important’ science because maybe if it was Walport would have read something about how bitching at people isn’t exactly the best way to get them to be efficient.

This attitude indicates that people like Walport aren’t listening to complaints by scientists – some may be legitimate some may not, but it seems to me if you are in some sort of position of administration for a grant funding body it should be a part of your JOB to listen to what the people that are doing the research actually think about how you are funding it. There are times when people do need to shut up and get on with it – but in this instance it is dismissive and an easy way out on Walport’s part. If you just tell people to shut up and go away it keeps you from having to address any real questions.

2 – Scientists need to be asking “important” questions.

Really, did we not know that? Most people that do scientific research feel they are asking important questions – I really doubt there are people that go to work and think – I am going to do my OWN research on a non-important question just becuase I don’t have anything else to do today.

and as @Stephen_Curry asked – well who decides what is ‘important’? I have blogged about this here, in the long-term you NEVER know where discoveries will come from. Do your peers decide? As Walport argued all funding comes by virtue of a peer-review grant process, yes it does, but peer-reviewers can be and are constrained, it depends on the funding scheme and importantly on the number of grants that are funded.
For instance, if all research councils decide that they are only going to fund certain topics than only people that work on these sexy topics will get funded. Deciding what topics are “sexy” is a dangerous game, as it is easy to identify sexy science when sexy science is ALREADY successful, but this greatly destroys your base for up and coming science or science that may well be “sexy” in 20 years, but maybe not so sexy now.

If only 3% of all grants are funded than many ‘important’ questions will get cut based on sheer numbers. Ranking importance isn’t easy to do for any peer-review group as they may be wrong and they don’t have crystal balls that peer into the future. Paraphrasing from the US Television Drama The West Wing, Einstein probably wouldn’t get funded today – people like Einstein would have been writing grants to funding bodies that were headed by people like Lord Kelvin who thought that physics was dead, in short he would have never gotten funded.

3 – People will keep their jobs they will just work on common problems (‘important’ questions)

This is good in some respects but it very much depends on the research. The Atomic bomb was a good example of very smart people working on a common problem. Working towards a specific technological advance is another very good example.
But only funding research like this is limiting and short-sighted.
One of the great strengths of the UK science research system, at least in the past, is that it tends to fund quite broadly – lots of ideas from blue skies research to established research – but you have to fund things across the board.

I am not arguing that really good scientists shouldn’t get money, they should and they already do, maybe they should get more but you have to fund younger scientists and less well known scientists with new ideas so that in 20 – 30 years you will have new sexy science instead of a monolithic non-diverse structure – like in ecology and finance – you need a diverse system to allow growth into the future. The danger is that if only 3 research topics get funded what happens when that research begins to reach a natural end? Where do you go next? If you have a pool of research (like a gene pool) you ensure, as much as you can ever ensure, that the soil is ready for the future and that you don’t end up with the scientific equivalent of the Hapsburg Chin.

Scientists as a group, of course have room for improvement, we can do things better, like communicate, but I don’t think continually telling us to get on with it, stop complaining and work on ‘important’ science is getting anyone anywhere. I think there needs to be some give on both sides – Scientists listing to what those in charge say and those ‘in charge’ taking some time and care to listen to working research scientists, not those who already have their FRS or Nobel prize, but those who are at different levels in their careers.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
This entry was posted in Mark Walport, Science Question Time, UK Science policy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Scientists need to ask ‘important’ questions – oh and stop “whingeing”

  1. alice says:

    Mmm, don’t think the whinging comment was about that end of things. I think it was more a call for scientists to realise the huge cultural power they do hold, rather than banging on about how everyone hates science and marginalises it all the time (which simply isn’t true).

    I hate to say this because (a) I hate the term and (b) I think there is a lot to criticise in Walport’s approach to science funding but I think you’re strawmanning a bit here.

    Totally agree Sophie Scott was the real star, even if Walport dominated conversation.

    • sylviamclain says:

      I disagree – several times he said we need to ‘ask important’ questions, whatever that means and in terms of funding scientists definitely feel they aren’t being ‘listened to’ – which I think actually is the point. Almost all funding bodies are saying that we need to stop complaining about this ‘excellence’ structure because we will still have jobs – but the point is, what kind of jobs? It may be they have a point, but researchers also have a point and there is not much being said back to people that have a problem with this funding structure other than ‘shut up and get on with it’ – In this sense alot of people doing scientific reserach feel marginalized.

      For instance you as a blogger have an independent opinion and voice and have your own independent blog (which is nice, in my opinion) – what if someone said – we will take that away and only fund or listen to the people that say ‘important’ things and you can go and work for them, your opinion doesn’t matter but someone bigger than you, their opinion does, you can be their secretary. It is the equivalent in my mind of what Walport was saying the funding structure will change to. SO yes he said we should stop whingeing because we have enough funding (the cuts didn’t hit us so hard) but he was hardly consistent in what he was saying about funding and scientists.

      • alice says:

        I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you about funding structures, I’m saying that the whinging line is different, that Walport isn’t stupid and he doesn’t think you are either (and neither does he want you to simply shut up).

        The sense of ‘important’ Walport (or at least as I remember him talking…) is using is rather more complex that you characterise here. For example, he acknowledged that ‘important’ is subjective, and that we need to feed a variety of subjective views into this. So, you may well be told what to research and I agree that you will have to cope with that. You are publicly funded. But that decision will not have been taken lightly, nor without consulting you (just it’ll have consulted others too), nor, importantly without awareness of the complexity of the relationship between science and technology and the various problems of directed research. I’m not saying we should be complacent about science funding at all, and I don’t think Walport is either, but you have to acknowledge the good as well as bad in it to make it better.

        I already am in the position where I have had part of my funding as an academic to do what I want to do taken away from me – I was made part-time last year and went from lecturer to teaching fellow (much less autonomous). For example, I put in my own personal time to run that event, but you’ve just given the good folks at IC credit (I don’t mind this, but you get my point…?)

        Again, I agree funding is something to argue about, but do not over simplify this debate, and don’t get tangled up in distracting red herring/ strawmen/ insert your own rhetorical metaphor.

  2. sylviamclain says:

    Alice – first of all, apologies for not giving you the credit you deserve, if you look at the page for Science question time on the Biochemical society website – it says thanks to ‘Case’ and staff at ‘Imperial College’ not you personally (that I could see), hence the reference; so I apologize firstly and secondly no I don’t get your point about that (you should in fact be given credit, I think)

    you are also correct that the debate is more complex than just the issues raised in my blog, but I am talking about one issue that Walport repeated not the entirity of what he said. I also never said Walport was ‘stupid’ – I took his comment to refer to the fact that scientists are whingeing too much about not being heard – I think that can be interpreted perhaps either as I have (stop whingeing about your funding) or have you have (stop whingeing you have alot of ‘cultural power’) but we obviously have a disconnect about what I took that to mean and what you took that to mean.

    I understand you think I am over-simplifying this debate – but I think you are debating about something different than I am, I am talking about scientists relationship with funding, and I believe you are talking about scientists and their ‘huge cultural power’ which I guess is in relationship to the media or to the public, or perhaps you are talking about the fact scientists are publically funded and the public should have a say?

    I am not sure what you actually mean (or anyone) when you say that scientists hold ‘huge cultural power’ – what does that mean in this context? And what kind of power? it seems to me that there is not alot of power if not many of us are getting funded. And who in science holds that power? Also – we do need to explain the science we do to the public ( I definitely think we should ) but how easy is that for people to actually do in an effective way? especially if they are cutting funding for people like you. How do scientists realize that power?

    I don’t think this debate is simple not at all, so please don’t accuse me of that, I also don’t think Walport is stupid, but I found his presentation very contradictory – because on one hand he acknowledged the need for diversity but on the other hand said scientists needed to ask ‘important’ questions – which at least as I remember it, in the midst of a discussion about funding different things.

    • alice says:

      1) Really don’t worry about the ‘credit’ – I raised it as an example, not grumble. I get as much out of the sometimes loose connection with Imperial as they do.
      2) Sorry if it sounded like I was saying you were being simplistic – I appreciate it might have come over as that, it was more an attempt to bring larger debate in which I think was colouring Walport’s rhetoric.

      I think you are right about the ‘debating about something different’ – sorry, that is what I (not very effectively) was trying to say initially – that Walport’s ref to being humble and whinging wasn’t to do with the funding issues which you are largely talking about here. My point was that you were conflating things.

      (this may well be due to me mis-remembering what Walport said – am happy to admit that)

      By cultural power I mean that ‘the public’, whatever they might be, are generally like science, as do a lot of politicians. In fact we might argue that they like and trust ‘science’ in an overly-credulous way. Not that science shouldn’t be liked/ trusted, but they work on a vague brand-science rather than a relationship with actual people and actual research. Hence why advertisers can play with a hand-waving ‘science bit’.

      I think brand science vs actual science links into a really important point you make below about not feeling very powerful as an individual researcher, and there is perhaps a difference between this and the power the scientific community as a whole (or rather, it’s ‘excellent’ leaders) whole – more power to the grass roots of science, perhaps…?

      • sylviamclain says:

        I know you were using it as an example – but I do think you deserve credit, you do alot of work for these things, which is very much apprecieated by me anyway.

        I am not sure I am conflating 2 issues, eg he did promote a model of funding which is ‘excellent’ – but I can see why it might seem that way if indeed he was indeed saying that scientists where wingey about their influence in the public/political sphere. But I think how scientists feel about their influence is perhaps related to BOTH the issues of ‘brand’ science vs. ‘actual’ science – but I think I see your point better now and will move on

        brand science vs. actual science – perhaps this is part of the problem – they are two entirely different things. I would argue that most day to day science has nothing to do with what we see on TV or how the ‘public’ (whatever that means) perhaps views us as praticing scientists. Much of the body of science moves slowly slowly and in all sorts of areas with occasionally huge breakthroughs and much science working towards a “common goal” or rather answering tiny parts of one larger question (but everyone knows this I bet) –

        so in that sense many ‘grass roots’ as you so aptly put it, scientists may not feel that they have much of a voice or a link with the public at large – its like the ‘pathways to impact’ thing we have to write now. while I in principle very much support the idea that I as a scientist NEED to impact the public, community, etc in the best way I know how, I am not sure really how to do this in the most effective way.

        Thank you very much for your comments, this is a good discussion in my opinion

  3. I worry a bit about this mantra about “excellence”, and the corollary message of “just get on with it”. The trouble is that there will inevitably be a feeling in the wider scientific community that people like Walport (and Sir Paul Nurse) move in rather rarified circles of research, in which all the people they meet are those who are already major winners in the game. What is the likelihood, for instance, that the people who sit on Wellcome’s funding panels are the same people with programme grants and ten-person research groups? I would suggest there is inevitably a tendency for such people, who have done so well out of a selective system “rewarding excellence”, to be more likely to see yet more selectivity and “rewarding excellence” as a solution to the present funding problems.

    Don’t get me wrong, Walport and Nurse are tremendous advocates for science. And sometimes the focus on “excellence” and “big projects” is the way to go, as with Wellcome’s funding of John Sulston and the human genome project, for which they deserve the whole world’s thanks. But I think some of Walport and Nurse’s prescriptions for how things happen WITHIN the UK community are a recipe for a tremendous loss of “scientific diversity”, as I have argued before.

  4. Now I really wish I’d been able to make the Sci QT event…

    I think the difference of interpretation between @Silvia and @Alice around the meaning of Walport’s words is fruitful (at least for me) in that it raises two sets of issues both of which fascinate me. Hopefully we can find a way to continue both these conversations (about ‘excellence’, concentration, priorities, autonomy and peer review; and about the gap between the perception of many in the science community about their cultural influence and the picture we get from the (admittedly limited) evidence about that influence.

    More please 😉

    • sylviamclain says:

      and perhaps different takes because of different focii – eg Alice is a sci communication/policy expert and I am research scientist…
      Anyway – the gap of perception in clutural influence I think is interesting as Alice brought up – I personally don’t feel I have hardly any influence – perhaps there is a real gap between what influence the scientists we see in the news have and the rest of those who work in science in the not so influential part of it. I don’t know – would be interested to know what you and Alice think about that aspect of things …

  5. j0ns1m0ns says:

    I think this is a great summary of a really engaging and thought-provoking event. Well done to Alice and colleagues for organising it.

    One point you mention, and which I wish MW had been asked to address further, is that the recent funding scheme changes seem to hit early-career researchers particularly hard.

    I’ve blogged about this here: In a nutshell, an applicant must already have been PI on a substantial grant to be “suitable” for the new WT scheme. But if research council funding is also being funnelled to a select few, how is an early-career researcher supposed to establish that funding track record? The only way would seem to be for the best to go abroad, which surely can’t be what the funding agencies want, can it?

  6. alice says:

    “like the ‘pathways to impact’ thing […] I am not sure really how to do this in the most effective way”

    Mmm. I think you may have put your finger on one of the other REALLY big issues here – if funding bodies are going to expect this sort of stuff, they need to give scientists support as to what they mean by it, how to do it effectively.

    On the other thing, maybe I’m missing something in the connection between impact and excellence, I see them as slightly different issues. Maybe they are more inherently connected in Walport’s mind that I’m reading though.

    • sylviamclain says:

      they are more inherently linked in my mind, the connection impact and excellence, which may be my reading of Walport – I fully admit that might be a bias of mine…

      I think if funding bodies expect pathways to impact you are right – we need guidance and understanding of how to try at least to make a real impact.. I am extremely interested in doing this well and fully aware I am not sure HOW to do it – I think we (researchers) should build bigger links with sci-policy people and sci-communications people personally as they know better, in my opinion and an exchange of ideas could be very fruitful – in a formal sense as well as like this, informally.

  7. It was an excellent debate and provided much stimulating food for thought. Like Sylvia, I was irked by Walport’s ‘whingeing scientists’ crack, and the fact that he didn’t directly answer my question about the rationale behind the Wellcome Trust’s move to Investigator awards which will lead to funding of fewer group leaders (though, as he said, the *total* number of scientists supported — inc. postdocs & tech — will probably be the same.

    I have to say I didn’t really expect him to do otherwise — what he said on the night was consistent with earlier pronouncements. But as has been mentioned above, there were *some* positives and I agree with Walport that we shouldn’t lose sight of those when communicating with the public or govt ministers. It’s complicated. As a result, my thoughts are still swirling a little. There’s no doubt we scientists still have to fight our corner in society but we should do it with a bit of grace. And with evidence. Lots of evidence. Which I think/hope is what the Science is Vital campaign tried to do.

  8. MW rightly emphasised research `excellence’ should take priority – determined the basis of peer review – though failed to acknowledge that excellence can be trumped by Research Council strategic priorities or political considerations. I was less impressed by MW’s dig at learned societies and his barely hidden threat that Wellcome is under no obligation to remain in UK (reminded me of the constant threat from investment bankers to leave them alone or they’ll decamp overseas). I’d have appreciated a more robust defense of societies by Royal Soc panelist.

    There was more on a need to produce `widgets’ for UK PLC over the present spending round to deliver on promises leading up to spending round. HEFCE have tried to stress that `impact’ will have a very broad definition in REF, but economic impact was the focus of MW and others. This was not a deciding factor in research funding over past spending rounds, so HMT must have been convinced of the track record that publicly funded research in UK universities has delivered. I fear a more explicit focus on delivering (economic) impact may have short term benefits but a weaker/narrower research base in the longer term.

    • sylviamclain says:

      the question I had at the event – how do you balance basic research with ‘widget’ research (or technology development) which I think I wasn’t clear about actually, I think is similar to what you are saying in your second point.

      I think the proposed funding structure of widget based research is, like you say, very short sighted, it will leave the UK technologically rich (only for a time) and scientifically weak in the long run. Also much basic research isn’t at the point to where it contributes much (yet) to technology, but perhaps it could do given time. With the drug companies having a harder and harder time developing drugs by their current techniques it seems to me it would be wise for them to fund more basic research in hope for new ideas in the future – but that requires long term thinking – which seems to be scarily absent from funding bodies (or the present government).

    • Been watching this with interest but this is a bit of a bug bear of mine. Stephen talks about evidence and in the past we’ve talked about engineering the funding and research system so as to maximise efficiency (while acknowledging that we don’t actually know exactly what outputs are important). I think there is a strong argument that “excellence”, even assuming we could measure it in advance, is the only criterion we should use.

      Actually I think there is a deep tension at the heart of Mark Walport’s remarks and the themes that he has echoed from people like Delpy and Willetts. Maximising research outputs, even when we only focus on enabling future research implies considering other criteria than excellent (or exciting, or internationally leading or whatever term you want to use) research. There are times when we need to just fill in tables, just do the groundwork, or even do things that aren’t even really “research” per se. And you also need the pool of unexcellent research to maintain both the “absorptive capacity” that Willet’s has talked about and also just to maintain a healthy diverse community both in terms of research areas and people.

      That’s not to say that excellence shouldn’t be the primary criterion just that I think its dangerous for it to be the only one. I actually had this argument with people from the trust a few month back when I asked whether their central goal was to have an effect on public health or to fund excellent research. Across research policy and funders people seem to have failed to realise that these two goals are not necessarily the same.

  9. Touched a few key, interesting points there. Lots of food for thought from the discussion at Science Question Time that you develop here. Thanks for raising some of these issues again. The shift in funding from the Wellcome Trust and other funding bodies should be discussed in more depth if the UK is to ensure it will stay at the forefront of scientific research and that should involve the scientific community, rather than be based on some general principals and statements such as “answer important questions”.
    This debate must continue. On events such as SciQT, in blogs, on twitter and in ever more engaging ways.

  10. cromercrox says:

    First – welcome, Sylvia!

    Second – I wasn’t at the event, but your account and the comments struck a possibly random chord. Many years when the world was young (OK, it was 1993) I was on assignment for your favourite weekly professional science magazine beginning with N, researching a 16-page feature called ‘Science in California’. I remember a wonderful day at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where they had taken pride, historically, in allowing researchers to use their considerable resources to explore notions that might seem wild and wacky. However, this approach was, even then, harder and harder to justify financially, so they came up with an elegant solution – whatever else they spent their money on, they would always ring-fence a small proportion of money – some seed-money – to finance smaller-scale, more speculative ventures – as a way of preserving their ethic. I suspect that many institutions do this. One of the problems I later found, when serving on the grants committee of the Linnean Society of London, is that many such grants exist, tucked away in odd corners, but people often don’t know they are there, or how to apply for them.

    • thanks for the welcome!
      funny you should bring up Seed money – I actually was the recipient of a seed money grant when I worked at Oak Ridge National Lab. They are hard to get though, you are correct as well not alot of people know about them, and they aren’t so much money but are nice for a start – I bet though if they cut money to DoE like they are threatening in the US that those lovely little grant will evaporate..

  11. Kevin Dontenville says:

    As a non-scientist but interested pleb, how much money are we talking about for these grants and funding rounds? What range of magnitudes of sterling are needed for seed money on mad, crazy, weird or unusual research projects? I just wondered whether there are weird, crazy, mad or better ways to gather the cash together?

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