Academics worried about move towards economically-driven funding of research.

Funding for academic research should be directed towards projects most likely to benefit the country’s economy, UK ministers have said. Government and research funding bodies setting out the framework for future public research investment are shifting funding towards projects with measurable societal and economic impact - triggering protests from many academics, who see the strategy as dangerously short sighted.

On 27 February, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared that while investment in science and engineering will be maintained, the research on which this money is spent should be more tightly controlled. ’Our approach is [to make a] clear strategic assessment of our future - based on the strengths and comparative advantages that Britain already has - to create a framework for prioritised long-term investment which allows the market to function effectively and prepares our country to emerge from the downturn in the strongest possible position.’ 

Brown’s comments reinforced recent statements made by science minister Lord Drayson, and by John Denham, the minister who heads the Department for innovation, universities and skills. Drayson has suggested research be focused on ’areas of excellence [in which] the UK has a clear competitive advantage, where the opportunity for growth over the next twenty years is significant, and where the UK has a realistic prospect of being number one or two in the world.’ 

But while ministers stress that they are looking towards the long-term stability of the UK science base, and that funding will still be available for basic, curiosity-driven research, academics are worried that by favouring market-oriented research or concentrating too heavily in some areas, the country could be directly undermining longer term success.

’Academics are involved in consolidating what we think we know, which involves a lot of mainstream research. But at the margins it involves research that will generate completely new lines of enquiry, and it is this which suffers when funding is restricted to what is required, rather than what academics want to do,’ says Don Braben, who, as well as being an academic researcher, has served in the cabinet office and the science research council, and founded the Venture Research initiative to independently fund basic research projects. 

’It is very easy to say you’re going to support blue-skies research, but very, very difficult to actually do it,’ Braben adds.

Predicting impact

Starting later this year, grant applications to the UK funding councils will be required to include an ’impact assessment’. This will take slightly different forms under different councils, for example the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), allows up to two pages per application in which researchers are asked to ’indicate potential pathways to impact’. 

Chlo? Somers from the strategy unit of RCUK, the umbrella organisation covering all seven research councils, explains: ’We have introduced the change to help researchers think about knowledge transfer activities and build these into their proposals from the beginning. It also gives researchers the opportunity to outline what they would like do to ensure impact and specify how Councils could support them in doing so.’ 

However, in a letter to the Times Higher Education Supplement, Braben and a host of academics across multiple disciplines urged peer reviewers to ignore the impact summaries, claiming that it is almost impossible for scientists to predict the impact of certain research projects, and equally difficult for a peer-reviewer to know whether any such predictions are meaningful. The letter also claims that by making such demands, the government is forcing academia to do the research that should be carried out by industry.

Philip Moriarty from the University of Nottingham, a signatory on the letter, believes that the government and research councils are missing a crucial point: ’As a publicly-funded scientist, a key component of my social contract is to educate (not simply train) students in the scientific method. Those students then provide a mechanism of knowledge transfer between industry and academia. How can the impact of that "human capital" possibly be quantified?’ 

Phil Gale from the University of Southampton is wary about the practicality of the scheme: ’It is reasonable to expect people to do research with impact, and I think chemistry does generally have high impact. But there will need to be detailed guidelines, both for academics and reviewers, to make sure that the system is not biased against basic research.’ Gale is also critical of the increasing ring-fencing of research funding available from research councils such as EPSRC.

Nobel Prize winner Harry Kroto, another signatory to the letter, provides a precautionary example of how difficult it can be to predict research impact, and the importance of being able to conduct true blue-skies research: ’The discovery of C60? was made on a project considered boring by almost everyone except me, but it overturned all the ideas of graphite chemistry. Soon after we published our first paper, there were six other papers published saying that we were wrong - so if we’d predicted it, it would have been denounced as rubbish - I might even have said the same myself because nobody understood what was going on until we did the experiments.’

’I understand it’s difficult for the public sector to fund blue-skies research because the spending must be justifiable to the taxpayer,’ adds Kroto. ’But historically it’s turned out that the big discoveries are those where our young people have been allowed to do things which look crazy at the time, but end up completely overturning the received wisdom.’

Phillip Broadwith