Science is in danger of becoming a treadmill

C&I Issue 2, 2011

Only the excellent need apply. Such was the message on research funding from Nobel prize winner Sir Paul Nurse, incoming president of the Royal Society. It is a message echoed by the Wellcome Trust – a major funder of medical and life sciences in the UK – which has abandoned project and programme grant support in favour of an investigator award scheme. This will offer generous long-term support to ‘the brightest researchers with the best ideas’. These grants will be a boon to anyone who gets one but the Wellcome Trust has acknowledged that they will be funding fewer individuals than under its previous arrangements. David Delpy, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) appears to favour a similar approach.

Science funding in the UK is already highly competitive, with only around 20% of grant applications successful. This new emphasis on excellence seems likely to make the competition yet more intense.

Who could argue with the drive for excellence? Excellence is good. Excellence is right. But excellence can be hard to judge and no review process claims to be perfect. What happens to excellent scientists who fail to win an investigator award? What about scientists who sacrifice some research effort for the sake of excellent teaching?

Although I am not privy to the internal machinations at the Wellcome Trust, I suspect the switch to investigator-based funding is due, in part, to the finding that its fellowship and programme grants produced papers with more citations than grants for shorter-term projects. But while project grants may be worth less by this relatively crude estimation, that doesn’t mean that they are worthless. In fact, project grant research accumulated two-thirds the number of citations of Wellcome research supported by longer-term funding.

And yet, implicit in the drive to fund fewer ‘excellent’ scientists is the calculation that anyone else is unworthy of support and can be shoved aside. The problem with this approach is that it does not take proper account of the heterogeneous ecosystem that supports scientific research in the UK.

No-one denies that competition is a good thing. Though most scientists are strongly selfmotivated, we all benefit from that external driver. But the system of research funding is out of balance, especially with regard to university based science. The stable, long-term funding that Wellcome – and perhaps the EPSRC – will offer through its investigator-based schemes will undoubtedly yield productivity boosts in winning labs. But the gains of a few will be won at the expense of those who lose out in the competition. The increased numbers of scientists refused funding by Wellcome will necessarily turn to the Research Councils, putting pressure on a funding system that is already creaking, at a time when the UK science budget is declining. Success rates in research council applications, already low, will dip further; the work and time expended on unsuccessful applications will increase. It is a recipe for inefficiency.

These tremors in the funding landscape will be exacerbated by the government’s plans for large increases in university tuition fees, a shift that places further strains on universitybased academics because students will, quite naturally, expect more teaching and contact time in return for the higher price paid for their undergraduate education. I see little evidence that the implications of all these changes have been thought through in the upper echelons of government or funding agencies. In discussions with my colleagues over the past several months, I have met no-one who looks to the future with enthusiasm or optimism. I have met many with a diminished sense of satisfaction in their scientific work. It is becoming a treadmill.

All scientists, if they are to be productive and innovative, need the time to speculate, to think, to plan. But with funds increasingly concentrated in a few labs, the capacity of the remainder to generate the data needed to support grant applications or to take the experimental risks that push at the boundaries of knowledge will be lost as they are forced to spend more and more of their vanishing time chasing money.

As there is recognised value in stable, long-term funding, why not offer it to the many and not just the few? A system that offers increased stability could well reap major productivity boosts. A scheme that would, for example, fund at least one research assistant or technician post for every tenured university scientist – perhaps to be reviewed or adjusted every five to seven years, according to productivity – would smooth out many of the stresses and strains of the current system. The wildly oscillating levels of funding that many labs have to cope with as a result of the uncertainties of the application process often prevents them from maintaining continuity of staff or effort that is so vital for the conduct of quality science. If that steady funding were to be offered in recognition of commitment to teaching, universities would do a better job of balancing the demands on their staff.

Competition is good and valuable, but not at the expense of everything else. It is important to remember that the UK scientific enterprise consists of more than just the research done in the very top labs and that science is done by men and women who appreciate being valued and supported.

Become an SCI Member to receive benefits and discounts

Join SCI