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An X Factor approach to UK science funding

October 25, 2011

In a lecture at last week’s opening of the London Science Festival, UK science minister David Willetts outlined one mechanism by which capital funding was awarded this year: ranking. Willetts described how the research councils had tabled the projects in need of money, and that six of the eight ranked had received capital funding. He said this was a “considerable achievement in a time of austerity”.

PST could not attend Willetts’ lecture (it was sold out, with no room for press representatives from blogging upstarts). But Joanna Scott’s report on her excellent London Blog includes a handy podcast of the speech. Willetts listed the lucky projects from the research councils’ priority table as including the superduper diamond light source synchrotron in Oxfordshire and the current birth cohort study. PST was surprised that the graphene commercialisation project, on which we recently reported, was not on the research councils’ list: demand for that money must have come from somewhere else.

At the moment, the two losers are the Rothera Research Station in Antarctica and the Institute for Animal Health at Compton. Both were on the list, but went home emptyhanded after the latest round of government funding.

The country is on hard times for sure. But is the ranking of research projects a little bit too X Factor? Perhaps the only way to build a kind of fairness into the grant-giving process is by holding a popularity contest. Willetts said that the research community decided to recommend the eight projects based on “what really mattered”.

But if science funding is to be decided by priority, who sets the criteria? And are they public? Speaking of public, it would be interesting to see whether the general population could be involved in deciding which science projects get cash. Of course that would be entirely impractical. But it might at least present the scientists with the worthy challenge of communicating the value of their research. You could even do this on a European scale (we’re a single market, right?). On the other hand, it might just serve to turn X Factor into Eurovision.

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