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Purse String Theory Flashback 3: The Battle for Funding

April 26, 2012

Purse String Theory (PST) began in October 2011, one year after the government froze the science budget at £4.6 billion – a real-terms cut of £1.7 billion. We set out to explore the ongoing funding debate among scientists, lobbyists, politicians and academics. In this mini-series of posts, each PST contributor reflects on the journey thus far.

I have spent all these years idly appreciating the fruits of researchers’ labour without a moment’s thought to the battle that they fight to win funding and keep our inspiration alive. Rarely has this battle raged more vociferously, and the spoils of war been more precious, than in this time of austerity.

The Government’s advocation of science has become meretricious. While ministers are keen to sing the praises of the UK’s research base, grabbing headlines with the odd cash-injection, they have made “return on investment” the key parameter by which the research councils should determine the allocation of funding.

The primary reason for this is the evidence indicating the contribution that the field of science makes to the economy. This has led politicians to declare science as the vehicle for economic growth – our knight in shining armour. By doing this they slowly shift the public’s gaze away from the instigators of our current plight – the financial sector.

Researchers suddenly find that their work is threatened by the weight of responsibility they have been shouldered with. The pursuit of knowledge to further our understanding of the world around us is no longer the driving force behind research. Instead, scientists spend their time forecasting the future profitability and the wide-reaching applications of their work before they’ve even begun their studies.

We can no longer afford to take risks and it seems we’re no longer willing to back the outsider, despite the greater reward if they should come up trumps. It begins to look like the approved areas of research have been ring-fenced along with the science budget.

We have all had to make sacrifices during the recession and the adopted mindset of Westminster has been damage limitation by minimising risk. But the PST community has been clear that progress isn’t made without taking risks. As Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, explained in this year’s Dimbleby lecture: “We have to keep our spirit of adventure: to take risks and be prepared sometimes to fail as research at the cutting edge is not always successful.”

More importantly, there is a reason that we more closely scrutinise any science conducted in the pursuit of financial goals. While researchers like to believe that they are blind to to everything but the evidence, immune to the influences of outside parties, conflicts of interest are an inevitable result of the current funding climate. Take the case of Peter Francis, who applied for funding using data that had been fabricated.

Ultimately it is the science that suffers, with reports of researchers admitting that fraudulent results can be the only way to secure publication in the most prestigious journals, and consequently their chances of further funding. Whilst reported cases of tweaked results remain low, using the public impact of research as a metric to judge funding allocation is an unwelcome encouragement. Manipulating the data to clinch that coveted front page splash might seem like just desserts for all that hard work but the simple truth is this: bad science is an expensive waste of time.

Given these tough economic times, we have seen the rise of a Government-led incentive for researchers to carry their work beyond publication. While there has been discussion in the scientific community over their reluctance to schmooze, the onus has been placed on them to commercialise their work by liaising with business leaders, entrepreneurs and private investors.

Scientists have often been guilty of living up to their stereotype of introverted boffins, preferring the company of plasmid vectors and the veil of anonymity that incomprehensible research affords its authors. But the times they are a-changin’. The necessity for scientists to communicate their work has arisen from their need to secure funding.

I’m sure we all want to see money available to foster the next generation of innovators who will be tasked with keeping the UK at the forefront of scientific research. This starts with ensuring that the communication of science is an integral part of the practice of science.

We have advanced the field at a rate that outpaces the public understanding. This creates fear and mistrust, with complex ethical, moral and legal issues arising in a subject that would ordinarily steer a wide course around them. For an investor, popularity often equals profitability. So who wants to fund science that is surrounded by messy public debates?

We at Purse String Theory have dedicated ourselves to illuminating the unenviable position that the UK’s researchers now find themselves in. Science funding: it may not draw the same levels of online traffic as “chocolate-covered sex” but it is evidently not a dry and dispassionate subject. And I feel confident that PST has done a greater service to our community than any pornographic confectioner.

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