Death by a thousand cuts: is it time for a change?

Just in case I wasn’t paying enough attention to the news or even Twitter, last week I got an email from the EPSRC saying..

As a result of the 50% reduction to the Research Councils capital budget, EPSRC has taken the decision to make immediate changes in the arrangements for funding equipment. This is in addition to, and ahead of, the longer term changes across RCUK in response to the Wakeham Review. Further details can be found on the EPSRC website.

The interim arrangements for funding equipment will apply to all proposals submitted prior to 1st May 2011.

Harsh, ex post facto decision if you ask me. After the fact decisions are bad for all sorts of reasons, similar to restrospective laws which are ‘frowned upon’ in the UK (according to Wikipedia) and out-and-out illegal in the US. I can’t really blame the research councils – what are they gonna do? The government has made these cuts and research councils because they are funded by the government have no choice but to adhere to them, they are in a tight spot.

I have had some discussions with my science and non-scientist friends about this who asked:
Can’t you just borrow someone else’s equipment?

Yes and no, depends on the equipment. Even if the answer is ‘yes’ this is easier said than done. What if your colleague down the hall has 5 students and post-docs in active research? How exactly is another research group going to ‘borrow’ this equipment which is constantly in use by the people that, well, own it? Remember borrowing your parent’s car? Didn’t always work out when Mom had to go to work.

Some equipment; even if its available can’t be shared. Different research groups are different because they do different research and different kinds of research aren’t always chemical (or biologically) compatible. The glove box is a great example – you can’t (or shouldn’t) just bung any old chemical into any glove box. From Chemistry 101 or really just home cleaning chemistry we all know that different chemicals can possibly react with each other – you don’t dump Caustic soda down your drain followed by a treatment with acid – it will explode. Same goes for glove boxes.

Anyway, before I digress too much…

There are some beautifully written (and spoken) arguments about what these cuts this will do to research science in the UK and why these cuts are potentially so harmful. On the other hand, I have heard (and read) the opposite opinion which summarized seems to be: Scientists are just going to have to deal with it and do more with less.

Summarized (and over-simplified, certainly) these two basic views are:

1 – Scientists need money to do research and can’t do research without money. If only bits of research of research are funded, whoops there goes your base and in 20 years, the UK will suck for science.

2 – Scientists need to stop wingeing about the cuts, get over it and learn how to do more with less.

Both of these points of view bring up one central question –

How do we change the current model of doing scientific research?

As academic research scientists we are trained to write for money from funding bodies to do research. The funding bodies are predominately government funded or philanthropically funded. The basic research cycle is get money, do research, publish papers, start cycle again. This is the current paradigm.

So where do we go now? The system is constraining in itself and there are not a whole lot of other options out there. Its not about people not working hard or whining I think its about where else can an academic researcher possibly go to get money? And please don’t say industry, please, if I am realistic about my core research – industrial applications may well arise but not at the very least for 5 – 10 years.

So, again, where do you go to get money for research? What do academic scientists do?

I have some ideas of course, I am far too opinionated not to, but ideas have to be set up into some kind of structure to work, which takes a huge amount of effort which I need to be applying to writing research grants, writing research papers so that I can get said research grants to write more research papers.

What next? I think the system is going to have to adapt somehow, and quickly. The government seems to be making cuts almost randomly which are personally giving me a bit of vertigo. It feels like Death by 1000 cuts, perhaps this is the Con/Lib secret plan for science funding? Not being a conspiracy theorist, I doubt it. The government seems to be just trying to hang onto the old system however they can without any foresight for the future – sort of slicing randomly with a blindfold on.

What I think we need to be doing, collectively, as scientists, as policiticans, as scipolicy people, as science-interested people is thinking hard about how to change the system and where do we go from here. The cuts are upon us whether we like it or not, and now its time to start thinking about the future on the large scale, the system scale – its time for a change.

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
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3 Responses to Death by a thousand cuts: is it time for a change?

  1. stephenemoss says:

    Unfortunately the current government is one that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. They have, in reducing the science budget, cut an activity that yields more to the economy in revenues than it costs. For a government seeking economic recovery this is plain daft, and runs contrary to other world economies who are investing in science as a way out of budget deficit.

    But one can see how political thinking has trumped economic considerations in government planning. The Research Council budget freeze will be in place for four years. It is surely no coincidence that this period of austerity will take us to the brink of the next general election. And what a propitious moment that would be to announce with much flag waving and trumpet blowing that science is to receive a generous boost in funding. In the meantime they’re already throwing back a few crumbs from the £1.4bn cut to the HEFCE budget, such as the recent £100m for a few select facilities such as Babraham. Personally I found it hard to stomach the simpering gratitude emanating from certain individuals at BIS at this supposed sign of government commitment to British science.

    None of which helps to address the current difficulties you describe, and perhaps I lack the necessary imagination, but I cannot see how any amount of restructuring or reorganization of the funding bodies can mitigate the absence of hard cash. Research is set to become increasingly concentrated in the leading research-intensive universities, and there will be a net drop in the UK’s scientific output. The idea that we will do ‘more with less’ is simply risible. We have reached the point where, as I noted in one of my infrequent blogs last year, government policy means that scientists will henceforth be doing ‘less with less’. Less research equals fewer discoveries, fewer patents and spinouts, less collaboration with industry, and more closures such as those a few months ago at Pfizer and Novartis.

    As scientists we must continue to challenge government policy through reason and evidence, and we need to hear persuasive arguments forcefully expressed from those such as Vice-Chancellors, sympathetic politicians (such as Evan Harris, Julian Huppert) and others in positions of influence (such as Paul Nurse, Brian Cox). The pressure that took physical form in the Science is Vital campaign has to be maintained.

    • Thanks for your comment – I agree; science has to have money and I agree that pressure has to be maintained to keep sci funding. What I am trying to question is how do we (government, funding bodies, whoever) raise that money ? How to we restructure the way science is funded via the government to make this a better situation for science?

      my fear is that we just hang onto saying please don’t cut please don’t cut (and I agree with your reasoning why this is bad to cut in the first place) and make no change – then government cuts randomly, like I think it is, and science research is pruned back to the point where it can’t survive. If the cuts are coming can we as scientists have better influence on where they are directed? Can government say setup a matching funds scheme with industry? Can full economic costing by universities be ‘lifted’ for charitable donations (as this can be a huge barrier to philanthropic donations)?

  2. stephenemoss says:

    My impression was that universities have complete flexibility on fEC for philanthropic donations? I am aware of examples at two ‘top’ universities where large donations (>£1m) were secured with fEC applied at <10%. The research that was funded primed several successful RC grant applications, as well as high profile papers that helped the host departments achieve maximum ratings in the RAE.

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