Editorial: Standing out from the crowd
Who decides which research should be funded? What are the flaws in the process? In this editorial, Matt Hutchings wonders if there might be a better way.
We scientists like to joke (or rather, complain) that applying for government funding is a bit like playing the lottery: winning is mostly luck. Often there is no rhyme nor reason that one grant application is funded while another isn’t, it ultimately depends on who reviews it, whether they like it and whether it fits with the strategic priorities dictated by the government. This is taxpayers’ money after all and the government don’t like to take risks with it for something as apparently unimportant as science. As Professor Brian Cox pointed out recently, our government spent more on bailing out the banks than they have spent on research funding “since Jesus”.
According to UK research council criteria, in order to be funded, the research should address issues that are relevant to the public, or perhaps more cynically, research that fits in with the current government’s election promises. In biology (our field) these relevant issues include: healthy ageing, food security and bioenergy, which can mean that important research areas are overlooked (for example, the research councils don’t fund research aimed at discovering new antibiotics).
More of a problem is that all proposed research projects must have a guaranteed “impact” (the new buzz word), which usually means publishing highly-cited articles in top tier journals, exploiting research to make money and communicating that science to inspire the general public (outreach).
This all seems reasonable given the amount of taxpayers’ money at stake, but as any scientist will tell you, funding research that guarantees results is unlikely to lead to any major discoveries. This is usually because the applicant has: (a) done the research already and knows the results (but isn’t telling the research council); or (b) is pretty much certain of what they’ll discover. What we need, and what has made the UK the most successful research nation on Earth over the last 450 years, is additional funding for blue skies research. This is the research that is perhaps slightly off the wall, but occasionally leads to a very important discovery.
Graphene is a well known example, but imagine writing a grant application that says you want to use sellotape to try and strip single atom-thick layers of graphite from the lead of a pencil? One Nobel prize later and the UK government have funded the prize winners to the tune of £38 million. Graphene is the great new hope of UK research. This is great of course, but what about the thousands of other researchers who are passionate about their subjects and have big ideas?
Well, given the popularity (and mass media coverage) of Kickstarter and other services like bandcamp, which see hugely diverse projects relying on crowd sourced funding, perhaps it was inevitable that a similar service would come to science. The petridish.org concept is simple: scientists apply to have a project advertised on the website, explaining why it’s important and the public get to donate money to fund the research project(s) they think are important. This cuts out the middle men who still think banking is more important to our economy than science and education.
Charities like the Wellcome Trust and the Leverhulme Trust will often fund research that doesn’t fit with research councils strategic priorities, but a small group of experts still have to choose the best ideas in a process that will always be subjective. With crowd-funding you just have to convince a large group of enthusiasts to part with small amounts of their hard earned cash and then make sure you give them value for money. Sounds easy, right ?
Matt is a Senior Lecturer at the University of East Anglia and co-editor of the microbelog. We have no affiliation to petridish.org.