Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Science funding: the year in review

A 'review of the year' has a seasonal ring to it, but there is little festive in the news for Britain's scientists, researchers and teachers in Higher Education. The major economic powers (let's stick to the G8 countries, of which the UK is one) have had to deal with unusually severe economic conditions, and all G8 countries are making budget cuts and decisions about where best to spend their tax revenues. It is interesting therefore to consider how the UK's leading competitors have dealt with HE and research, with regard to the choices of 'cut', 'do nothing' or 'invest'. For brevity I will focus only on the USA, France and Germany, and summarise how these countries have responded to the financial squeeze in terms of HE/science funding. Blocks of text in gray are taken more or less verbatim from the original news articles.

Direct comparisons are inevitably tricky due to national differences in ministerial portfolios, definitions and emphasis, but read on and be in no doubt as to the picture that emerges. With the US HE system being largely privately funded one must necessarily focus on the publicly funded research budget. Early in the year President Obama announced his 'stimulus package', an extra $10bn for the NIH to spend over two years. Notwithstanding the point made by many US researchers that the short time-frame of the fund was not ideal, the clear message was that the US view is that research should be stimulated at a time of financial hardship.

Next up was Germany. In June the German chancellor announced an award of some €2.7bn in research funding to German universities and research institutions. The funding will form part of an overall €18bn (new money over the next 10 years) investment in science and education, the largest such single amount in Germany's post-war history. (See and So Germany too appears to take the view that investment in HE and research is a critical card to play in a recession-busting budget.

Then a few weeks ago, step up France. Valérie Pécresse, the HE and research minister revealed that her portfolio was "the top priority for the 3rd year running". Earmarked spending for HE and research is up, including inflation, 5.3%, to €29.2bn from this year's €27.7bn. As for research itself, it will receive a boost of €804 million. Moreover, another €731 million were injected into Pécresse's budget this year, including €286 million for research, as part of the government's economic recovery plan. (see So even France, cash-strapped with it's huge public spending commitments, sees HE and research as of the highest priority when it comes to digging itself out of recession.

Finally, in December, it was the turn of UK chancellor Alistair Darling to announce er, a cut of £600 million in spending for HE/research by 2012. Given that successive UK governments have historically always spent less than their G8 competitors (in terms of %GDP) on HE/research, to impose a cut on an already severely stretched budget defies comprehension. Today's announcement from meddling Mandelson of an immediate cut of more than £500 million for universities (which may or may not be part of the £600 million), confirms the view of the UK government that HE/research is not a high priority, that it is perhaps something of an extravagance, and certainly not the route out of recession.

Why is the UK so strikingly out of line with the other major economic powers? It doesn't seem to be a simple question of political ideologies, since the US, France and Germany represent a reasonable spread of political thought. Moreover, the Tory Shadow Science Minister, Adam Afriyie, recently posted a blog in the New Scientist ( that eulogised about British science in tones similar to those we hear from the current administration, but with little substance and much about encouraging 'public debate', and presenting 'clear arguments' to the public as to why science is important. If this is Tory science policy it is uncontaminated by substance, conveniently inexpensive, and conceals not a jot of a commitment to increasing science funding.

I noticed a recent Tweet that exhorted scientists and HE teachers to march on Whitehall. Let's do it (the French would). And let's make Mandelson and his cronies explain why they think the UK has got it right, and France, Germany and the US have got it wrong.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Impact of Impact

Of all the topics discussed at #sciblue, 'impact' has surfaced as the most provocative post-debate. @SmallCasserole has written an excellent blog on the confusion that was evident at the debate with regard to impact analysis as part of the REF, and impact analysis as a crystal ball-gazing exercise in grant applications

Although the anti-impact (REF) movement has attracted much support, including that of 6 nobel laureates, it is not clear from the message boards whether the antipathy is directed solely towards the use of impact to gate the distribution of the HEFCE budget, or impact analysis as a tool for public engagement and accountability. I suspect the former, but either way, there are clearly some scientists who appear to be comfortable with impact being used in the context of the REF.

As for assessing the impact of research ideas expressed in new grant applications, this is plain barmy. To devise an 'impact management plan' for a blue skies project, which is what we are now required to do, is to produce a couple of pages of pure fiction. Yet there are projects for which one can assess likely impact, before the work has been done. My own research ranges from blue skies to clinically applied, and for the latter it would be possible to explain the impact the work will have - relevant text already forms part of the 'Case for Support' in such proposals and so to cut and paste into the 'impact' box would not entail much extra work.

The solution might therefore be for the RCUK to offer applicants a simple choice. Is your proposal basic/fundamental/blue skies, or applied/translational? If the former, skip the following section (impact), if the latter, fill it in. For proposals that appear to fall between these two broad categories, for example, where blue skies science might have 'impact' through the generation of new intellectual property, there are already places in the application forms where this can be addressed.

My view is that grant application forms have become cluttered with all manner of irrelevant questions, and that there is not a jot of hard evidence that any of this extra box ticking and bureaucracy has had any beneficial impact on the quality and quantity of scientific output in the UK. Science would work better without impact analysis, but if it is to be forced upon us, it should at least be in a way that makes sense.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Blue Skies Ahead

Last night I attended the ‘Blue Skies Ahead’ debate (#sciblue on Twitter) imagining that the focus of the meeting would be discussion of blue skies research, and the place of such fundamental/basic research in the thinking and future plans of government. Some nice blogs that explain the purpose of and background to the meeting have already appeared, my aim here will be to try and avoid unnecessary repetition.

Lord Drayson (science minister) took centre stage and he fielded a wide range of questions with a combination of honesty, integrity, and (worryingly) at times confusion. Nevertheless, in 25 years in medical research, I found it refreshing and unusual to have a science minister willing to talk directly to scientists – and scientists at all levels. So, top marks to Lord Drayson, the THE, and the physicists and astronomers who organised the event.

Although the debate attempted to cover too wide a range of topics, and ‘blue skies’ research barely featured, there was at least some impassioned discussion of the Govt’s ‘impact agenda’. On this issue it appeared that Lord Drayson was not aware of the important difference between the need to provide a retrospective analysis of the impact of research for the purposes of RAE/REF/HEFCE, and the new demands of the RCUK to provide a ‘predictive’ assessment of the impact of proposed research, as part of future grant applications. The obvious problem is that blue skies research, by definition, is research where the outcomes cannot be predicted, hence any attempt to assess possible impact might as well resort to astrology or the inspection of goat’s entrails. See also for a good illustration of how impact analysis doesn’t work.

Lord Drayson emphasised the need for scientists to impress government with the importance of their work in order to justify/safeguard future funding. Few would disagree with this, but there is the potential for internecine division lurking beneath the surface, that could too easily lead to in-fighting between scientists competing for shares of a shrinking pot of funding. It is important that scientists do not end up squabbling over the meagre resources available, and that instead we challenge the government to invest at similar levels to our major competitors (such as France and Germany). The arguments for increasing science funding should be utterly compelling since UUK, through teaching and research, will be central to wealth generation in the years ahead.

The topic that concluded the debate, namely the teaching of science (and particularly physics) at high school level, was of obvious importance but discordant with the theme of the evening.

I hope Lord Drayson will continue to talk to scientists, and that a much needed debate of blue skies research may yet take place.