What's your research worth?

British grant applicants will have to demonstrate the economic or social impact of their research, according to new funding rules rolled out by linkurl:Research Councils UK;http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/ (RCUK), the umbrella body for all of Britain's seven research councils. The "impact summary,"

By | January 15, 2009

British grant applicants will have to demonstrate the economic or social impact of their research, according to new funding rules rolled out by linkurl:Research Councils UK;http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/ (RCUK), the umbrella body for all of Britain's seven research councils. The "impact summary," which requires grant seekers to answer questions about the wider benefits of their research, was implemented today (Jan. 15) by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Other funding bodies, including the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), will follow suit in the coming months. The Medical Research Council (MRC), which operates under a different system, was unaffected by the decision.
"The change is to underline our 'excellence with impact' agenda," Chloë Somers, a media spokesperson with RCUK, told __The Scientist__. "We recognize the fact that researchers are already doing this but we want to make it easier for them." Critics, however, argue that the initiative pushes academic research closer to a corporate model, and that it could hurt blue-skies research initiatives. "To try and make predictions about the impact of a piece of research in the early stages is going to be extremely difficult," Nick Dusic, director of the linkurl:Campaign for Science and Engineering,;http://www.savebritishscience.org.uk/ told __The Scientist__. "Most researchers won't know what the societal or economic benefit will be until after [the research] has been done, and there could be unforeseeable benefits that weren't anticipated when the research project started." Philip Esler, chief executive of the linkurl:UK Arts and Humanities Research Council;http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/ and the leader of RCUK's policy on economic impact, disagreed. "We're not trying to in any way divert researchers from doing excellent research," he told the__ linkurl:Times Higher Education Supplement.;http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=404997&c=1 __"We want them to continue to do that, and we want to encourage them to produce other benefits. We believe they will have more fulfilling careers if they do." "Excellent research without obvious or immediate impact will continue to be funded by the Research Councils and will not be disadvantaged within the assessment process," the RCUK wrote in a statement.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Sparring over UK funding plan;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/24225/
[2nd August 2006]*linkurl:UK knowledge transfer found lacking;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/23255/
[29th March 2006]*linkurl:New umbrella body for British biology;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/21582/
[11th September 2003]


January 18, 2009

While nothing can be more shortsighted (or presumptuous) than one's hoping to be able to predict the eventual quality, or impact, of a piece of science, science managers have been insisting on the making of such predictions for decades now, in many countries including the one in which I work and live. \n\nThe best thing to do - under the circumstances - is probably to keep things quiet, with the minimum fuss, and fill-in the relevant columns in the grant-application forms with the best things that one can say about one's research, and its significance, since no one in a government science department (any government; any country) likes to listen to arguments supporting curiosity-driven research anyway; never mind how many voices cry themselves hoarse about how useful such research has been - to humanity - in past decades, and centuries.\n\nSince most support offered by science managers for curiosity-driven research tends to amount to little more than 'lip service' anyway (most of them do indeed wish to bring in a corporate model, as one discovers in private conversations with any science manager), it is critical that the decision-making process - regarding the awards of grants - remain in the hands of active scientists, or recently-retired scientists, and does not slip into the hands of the science managers - especially the ones who have never done any science themselves. \n\nAs long as working scientists make decisions (i.e., scientists who know how science really works, from their own work and experience - and not from attending a course about what Kuhn, or someone else, thought) it doesn't really matter what a grant application requires, or does not require, in terms of predictions of likely impact - from the grant applicant. If it's good science, it will probably stand a good chance of being funded, if a good scientist - rather than a science manager - gets a chance to size it up. \n\nOf course, there would be foul-ups, just as there are with papers submitted to the regular hoary-old scientific society journals, where we - at least - find ourselves getting stabbed (even if unfairly) by others of our ilk, as scientists, rather than by young Ph.Ds and postdocs at the privately-published professional journals; these young editors at the professional journals - who scan the high seas of scientific fashion, and the speakers lists at conferences, to determine what should get reviewed, and what should get junked - being the equivalent of the professional science managers; people who've opted out of science themselves, and also insecurely put their own assessments on hold in deference to fashion and market forces, without surrendering their desire to determine what is of worth, and what isn't ! \n\nIf the decision-making in the funding of science should somehow slip into the hands of these professional science managers [who don't really give a damn about much more than maximizing the grant money flowing through their department, and minimizing the number of people it is awarded to, to minimize the file-work] who knows where things will lead ! \n\nEvery one knows how market forces work, and the last thing that science needs - today - is to let market forces (or worse, fashion!) determine which kind of science gets funded. Where science is concerned, letting the market determine scientific activity is probably worse than allowing a tail to wag its dog !\n\nBecause many of them have never done science, or loved doing science, science managers have never really understood the most important thing that makes scientists tick - which, arguably, is self-esteem, quite regardless of whether one has entered science to answer interesting questions, or to help humanity. \n\nIf one has poor self-esteem, how can one hope to ferret out nature's secrets, as a discoverer, or get nature to submit its phenomena to the directions of one's hands, as an inventor? \n\nTo get a good scientist/technologist to submit to market forces against one's wishes is to destroy that scientist's self-esteem, and turn him/her into a street-walker; an automaton; still functional, but of dubious standing, reliability and motivation, and driven entirely by commerce! \n\nIf scientists are to retain control of the scientific enterprise (as they more-or-less have until now, worldwide), there can be no surrendering of the really important responsibilities, and decisions, to the professional science managers who have come to increasingly determine broad policies and frameworks for funding. \n\nSenior scientists in every field - especially those who have had a fulfilling life in research, and are still capable of remaining active - will thus end up making, or breaking, the prospects of science in the coming decades, depending on whether or not they agree to participate in, and remain in, the important committees and task forces as members and chairmen, or withdraw to lead hands-off lives; since younger scientists cannot leave their labs to play these roles yet. \n\nIf the decision-making space in science ends up getting abdicated to the professional science managers, heaven help science ! Otherwise, as long as everybody understands that these things (i.e., blurbs and predictions about the potential importance, and worth, of some proposed research) are just governmental necessities, the more things change the more they can remain the same !\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 125

January 18, 2009

Medical research often gets a preferential treatment over basic research in bioscience, because of its purported benefit to people's health and well-being. But, when much of biology under normal circumstances is still unknown or misunderstood, how can the reliable knowledge of abnormal situations in diseases or injuries be determined? Accurate medical diagnosis, especially at a cellular level, is impossible without first knowing the range of normal physiology from which abnormal condition deviates. It's like trying to determine which part or parts of an automobile needs to be repaired or replaced without knowing what parts there are and how those function normally inside it. I'm afraid that, in the pursuit of the greatest rewards and awards, the bioscience community has either voluntarily neglected the prerequisite basic research in favor of medical research or has been pressured to do so by outsiders. A need-based research in science to treat or cure a disease cannot progress unless sufficient knowledge of healthy aspects with which to compare it are known.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 7

January 26, 2009

Guptasarma's comments illustrate what is wrong with many Scientists: inablity to communicate without being verbose. After reading through the whole length of it, I dd not get his message ( I am also a practicing Scientist,( not one of those grandiose Editors/ Science Managers disparaged by Guptasarma). It would be good to train scientists to communicate their message on the phone, so they keep it short and clear - and understandable to the " science managers" who are, fortunately or unfortunately here to stay.
Avatar of: DAVID RAY


Posts: 3

February 2, 2009

US scientists must be rubbing their hands with glee at the news that research managers are driving another nail into the coffin of academic research in the UK; possibly a fatal one, if you will excuse the mixed metaphors. I have been amazed at the continued commitment by UK researchers to producing a consistent level of high quality research aimed at opening up new understanding in important areas of science. They have been squeezed on every front, while their resources have been reduced towards the bare minimum at which intellectual endeavour can be viable. Plenty of times I have heard US researchers ask how on earth the Brits do it? Well, it will not be for much longer before our system crashes, if RCUK come up with more schemes like this one.\n\nIf reported correctly, Ms Somers?s comments imitate spin learned from New Labour; it does not sound to me like filling in impact assessment forms will make life easier for researchers. Whilst Professor Esler is disingenuous in his argument that UK researchers will find they have more fulfilling careers pushed away from what they really good at, to competing head on with better funded international competition. Because one outcome of implementing these impact assessment plans will be to make the research manager?s life easier and cheaper. The inevitable outcome will be that UK research funding will be driven by functionaries ticking boxes; just as in the rest of the world.

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