Home » Blog

Creating a research community monoculture – just when we need diversity

13 April 2009 2 Comments

This post is a follow on from a random tweet that I sent a few weeks back in response to a query on twitter from Lord Drayson, the UK’s Minister of State for Science and Innovation. I thought it might be an idea to expand from the 140 characters that I had to play with at the time but its taken me a while to get to it. It builds on the ideas of a post from last year but is given a degree of urgency by the current changes in policy proposed by EPSRC.

Government money for research is limited, and comes from the pockets of taxpayers. It is incumbent on those of us who spend it to ensure that this investment generates maximum impact. Impact, for me comes in two forms. Firstly there is straightforward (although not straightforward to measure) economic impact; increases in competitivenes, standard of living, development of business opportunities, social mobility, reductions in the burden of ill health and hopefully in environmental burden at some point in the future. The problem with economic impact is that it is almost impossible to measure in any meaningful way. The second area of impact is, at least on the surface, a little easier to track, that is research outputs delivere. How efficiently do we turn money into science? Scratch beneath the surface and you realise rapidly that measurement is a nightmare, but we can at least look at where there are inefficiencies, where money is being wasted, and being lost from the pipelines before it can be spent on research effort.

The approach that is being explicitly adopted in the UK is to concentrate research in “centres of excellence” and to “focus research on areas where the UK leads” and where “they are relevant to the UK’s needs”. At one level this sounds like motherhood and apple pie. It makes sense in terms of infrastructure investment to focus research funding both geographically and in specific subject areas. But at another level it has the potential to completely undermine the UK’s history of research excellence.

There is a fundamental problem with trying to maximise the economic impact of research. And it is one that any commercial expert, or indeed politician should find obvious. Markets are good at picking winners, commitees are very bad at it. Using committees of scientists, with little or no experience of commercialising research outputs is likely to be an unmitigated disaster. There is no question that some research leds to commercial outcomes but to the best of my knowledge there is no evidence that anyone has ever had any success in picking the right projects in advance. The simple fact is that the biggest form of economic impact from research is in providing and supporting the diverse and skilled workforce that support a commercially responsive, high technology economy. To a very large extent it doesn’t actually matter what specific research you support as long as it is diverse. And you will probably generate just exactly the same amount of commercial outcomes by picking at random as you will by trying to pick winners.

The world, and the UK in particular, is facing severe challenges both economic and environmental for which there may be technological solutions. Indeed there is a real opportunity in the current economic climate to reboot the economy with low carbon technologies and at the same time take the opportunity to really rebuild the information economy in a way that takes advantage of the tools the web provides, and in turn to use this to improve outcomes in health, social welfare, to develop new environmentally friendly processes and materials. The UK has great potential to lead these developments precisely because it has a diverse research community and a diverse highly trained research and technology workforce. We are well placed to solve todays problems with tomorrow’s technology.

Now let us return to the current UK policy proposals. These are to concentrate research, to reduce diversity, and to focus on areas of UK strength. How will those strengths be identified? No doubt by committee. Will they be forward looking strengths? No, they will be what a bunch of old men, already selected by their conformance to a particular stereotype, i.e. the ones doing fundable research i fundable places, identify in a closed room. It is easy to identify the big challenges. It is not easy, perhaps not even possible, to identify the technological solutions that will eventually solve them. Not the currently most promising solutions, the ones that will solve the problem five or ten years down the track.

As a thought experiment think back to what the UK’s research strengths and challenges were 20 years ago and imagine a world in which they were exclusively funded. It would be easy to argue that many of the UK’s current strengths simply wouldn’t even exist (web technology? biotechnology? polymer materials?). And that disciplines that have subsequently reduced in size or entirely disappeared would have been maintained at the cost of new innovation. Concentrating research in a few places, on a few subjects, will reduce diversity, leading to the loss of skills, and probably the loss of skilled people as researchers realise there is no future career for them in the UK. It will not provide the diverse and skilled workforce required to solve the problems we face today. Concentrating on current strengths, no matter how worthy, will lead to ossification and conservatism making UK research ultimately irrelevant on a world stage.

What we need more than ever now, is a diverse and vibrant research community working on a wide range of problems, and to find better communication tools so as to efficiently connect unexpected solutions to problems in different areas. This is not the usual argument for “blue skies research”, whatever that may be. It is an argument for using market forces to do what they are best at (pick the winners from a range of possible technologies) and to use the smart people currently employed in research positions at government expense to actually do what they are good at; do research and train new researchers. It is an argument for critically looking at the expenditure of government money in a wholistic way and to seriously consider radical change where money is being wasted. I have estimated in the past that the annual cost of failed grant proposals to the UK government is somewhere between £100M – £500M, a large sum of money in anybody’s books. More rigorous economic analysis of a Canadian government funding scheme has shown that the cost of preparing and refeering the proposals ($CAN40k) is more than the cost of giving every eligible applicant a support grantof $CAN30k. This is not just farcical, it is an offensive waste of taxpayer’s money.

The funding and distribution of research money requires radicaly overhaul. I do not beleive that simply providing more money is the solution. Frankly we’ve had a lot more money, it makes life a little more comfortable if you are in the right places, but it has reduced the pressure to solve the underlying problems. We need responsive funding at a wide range of levels that enables both bursts of research, the kind of instant collaboration that we know can work, with little or no review, and large scale data gathering projects of strategic importance that need extensive and careful critical review before being approved.  And we need mechanisms to tension these against each other. We need baseline funding to just let people get on with research and we need access to larger sums where appropriate.

We need less buearacracy, less direction from the top, and more direction from the sides, from the community, and not just necessarily the community of researchers. What we have at the moment are strategic initiatives announced by research councils that are around five years behind the leading edge, which distort and constrain real innovation. Now we have ministers proposing to identify the UK’s research strengths. No doubt these will be five to ten years out of date and they will almost certainly stifle those pockets of excellence that will grow in strengths over the next decade. No-one will ever agree what tomorrow’s strengths will be. Much better would be to get on and find out.