Archive for research grants

Why Research Loans Should Replace Grants For Commercially-Driven Research

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on August 4, 2015 by telescoper

Two recent items in the Times Higher about UK Higher education – concerning the abolition of maintenance grants for less well-off students and whether business should contribute more to the cost of research reminded me of a post I wrote almost exactly five years ago. Was it really so long ago? Anyway, I am old so I am allowed to repeat myself even if people aren’t listening, so here’s the gist of the argument I made way back then….

Universities essentially do two things, teaching and research. However, when you think about it, there’s a fundamental inconsistency in the way these are funded. It seems to me that correcting this anomaly could significantly improve  both the main benefits  universities contribute to the UK economy.

First, research. If  research is going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors, interested businesses or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. This is pretty much the opposite of what the Treasury thinks. It wants to concentrate public funds in projects that  can demonstrate immediate commercial potential. Taxpayer’s money used in this way either ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs if the research succeeds or, if it doesn’t,  the grant has effectively been wasted. It’s yet another example of the taxpayer bearing the risk that an investment might fail, but not sharing in the benefits if it succeeds. This is analogous to the way  the taxpayer bailed out the banking sector in the aftermath of the Credit Crunch in 2008, only to see the profits subsequently transferred back into private hands.  This is happening to an increasing extent elsewhere in the United Kingdom, as public services built up through state investment are being transferred to for-profit organizations. Even our beloved National Health Service seems to be on an irreversible path to privatization.

My proposal for research funding would involve phasing out research grants for groups that want to concentrate on commercially-motivated research and replace them with research loans. If the claims the researchers  make to secure the advance are justified, they should have no problem repaying it  from the profits they make from patent income, commercial sales,  or other forms of exploitation. If not, then they will have to pay back the loan from their own funds (as well as being exposed for having made over-optimistic claims). In the current economic situation the loans could be made at very low interest rates and still save a huge amount of the current research budget for higher education. Indeed after a few years – I suggest the loans should be repayable in 3-5 years –  it would be self-financing. I think a large fraction of research in the Applied Sciences and Engineering should be funded in this way.

The money saved by replacing grants  to commercially driven research with loans could be re-invested in those areas where public investment is really needed, such as pure science and medicine. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, but that is accidental and likely to appear only in the very long term. The real motivation of doing this kind of research is to enrich the knowledge base of the UK and the world in general. In other words, it’s for the public good. Remember that?

Most of you probably think that this is a crazy idea, but if you do I’ll ask you to now think about how the government funds teaching in universities and ask yourself why research is handled in such a  different way.

Way back in the mists of time when I was a student, I didn’t have to pay fees and even got a maintenance grant from the government that was more-or-less sufficient to live on. That system changed so that students don’t get grants any more, but may qualify for loans. They also have to pay fees. The government only pays an amount directly to the university on their behalf if they are studying an “expensive” subject, i.e. a laboratory-based science, and that amount is very small (and decreasing with time). This change of policy happened because the (then) Labour government wanted to boost the rate of participation in universities, but didn’t think the taxpayer should pay the whole cost. The logic goes that the students benefit from their education, e.g. in terms of increased earnings over their working lifetime, so they should pay a contribution to it. The policy has changed since then into one in which many students bear the full cost of their tuition.

I don’t come from a wealthy family background so it’s not clear whether I would have been able to go to University under the current system. I would have been prepared to borrow to fund tuition fees, but without a maintenance grant for day-to-day living I don’t think I could have afforded it as my parents could not have supported me financially. In my opinion the removal of maintenance grants is far more likely to deter students from poorer backgrounds from going to University than the introduction of fees.

Anyway, the problem with all these changes is that they have led to a huge increase in enrolment on degree courses in “vocational” areas such as Leisure & Tourism, Media Studies, and Business while traditional courses, such as those in STEM disciplines, providing the sort of rigorous intellectual training that is essential for many sectors of the economy, have struggled to keep up. This is partly because subjects like Mathematics and Physics are difficult, partly because they are expensive, and partly because the UK school system has ceased to provide adequate preparation for such courses. I’m by no means against universities supplying training in vocational subjects, but because these are the areas where the primary beneficiary is indeed the student, I don’t think the government should subsidise them as much as the more rigorous courses that we really need to encourage the brightest students to take up. Universities are not just for training. They have a much deeper purpose.

If it’s fair to ask students to contribute to their teaching, it’s fair to ask commercial companies to pay for the research that they exploit. Just as student grants should be re-introduced for certain disciplines, so should research loans be introduced for others. You know it makes sense.

However, if you want to tell me why it doesn’t, via the comments box, please feel free!

Changing the framework for industrial policy

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , on June 11, 2014 by telescoper

Here’s another one of the showcases of research from Sussex University. This one features Professor Mariana Mazzucato who debunks the myth of the state as a bureaucratic nanny that stifles creativity in industry, and instead recognizes the vital role of state-led investment in driving innovation and shaping and creating new markets from the internet to biotech to clean tech.

For what it’s worth this gives me an excuse to a view that I’ve expressed before that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven research. You know, things like science…

This is pretty much the opposite of what the Treasury thinks. It wants to concentrate public funds in projects that can demonstrate immediate commercial potential. Taxpayer’s money used in this way ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs if the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t, the grant will have been wasted if the research does not have any long-term fundamental significance. My proposal, therefore, is to phase out research grants for groups that want to concentrate on commercially motivated research and replace them with research loans. If the claims they make to secure the advance are justified they should have no problem repaying it from the profits they make from patent income or other forms of exploitation. If not, then they will have to pay back the loan from their own funds (as well as being exposed as bullshit merchants). In the current economic situation the loans could be made at very low interest rates and still save a huge amount of the current research budget for higher education. Indeed after a few years – suggest the loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, it would be self-financing. I think a large fraction of research in the Applied Sciences and Engineering should be funded in this way.

The money saved by replacing grants to commercially driven research groups with loans could be re-invested in those areas where public investment is really needed, such as pure science and medicine. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, but that is accidental and likely to appear only in the very long term. The real motivation of doing this kind of research is to enrich the knowledge base of the UK and the world in general. In other words, it’s for the public good. Remember that?

If it’s fair to ask students to contribute to their teaching, it’s fair to ask commercial companies to pay for the research that they exploit. Just as student grants should be re-introduced for certain disciplines, so should research loans be introduced for others. You know it makes sense.

However, if you want to tell me why it doesn’t, via the comments box, please feel free!

Decline and Fall

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2011 by telescoper

There’s an interesting discussion going on over at the e-Astronomer Andy Lawrence’s blog about truth, lies and astronomy grant funding.

The centrepiece of Andy’s post is the following graph, which is based on the most accurate available figures, showing how the number of postdoctoral research associate (postdoc) positions funded (first by SERC, then by PPARC, and then by STFC) in Astronomy has evolved over the last couple of decades, along with the number of permanent academic staff employed in UK universities.

To be precise it shows the number of new postdoc posts funded each year; since a postdoc position typically lasts 3 years, the total number of postdocs at ay time is roughly 3 times the number shown.

A few things are immediately clear. One is that both the number of academics and the number of postdocs grew steadily over the period covered by the graph, until 2006 after which there was a steep decline in the number of postdocs to a level substantially lower than the number funded in 2000. It’s not a coincidence that STFC was created in 2007.

The numerical growth of the UK astronomical community coincided with a  general expansion of the number of academics in the University resulting from the growth of funded student  numbers, but it also was also accompanied by improved access to large facilities. It also happened to be a time of high achievement by British astronomers, who played major roles in large projects that uncovered many deep secrets of the Universe, such as the existence of cosmological dark matter and dark energy.

Further details of the achievements of UK Astronomy over the last decade are given by our own Bill Frindall, Paul Crowther (see his page for references):

Astrophysics: UK space science (astrophysics) is ranked 2nd in citations (1999-2009), while UK physics ranks 5th internationally (1997-2007). According to Section 3 of the RCUK Review of Physics, combining these two categories places the UK 2nd to the USA overall – see bibliometric analysis. According to the IoP Survey of Academic Appointments in Physics, the UK astronomy academic community grew by 14 per cent in the 5 years leading up to 2008, compared with 12% for physics overall. From 2003/04 to 2007/08 physics departments expanded by 14%, equal to the wider UK average for all disciplines (see Sustainability of the UK research workforce report from RCUK. Undergraduate applications (admissions) to physics grew by 19% (11%) between 2002-2007 according to the DIUS Research Report 08-21. Astrophysics formed one of the case studies for a CSHE (UC Berkeley) science communication report from Jan 2010.

All this expansion didn’t come cheap, of course, but in my view  it was entirely justified on the grounds of scientific excellence. That used to count for something among the science policy makers, but those times seem to have gone. Not that the collateral benefits were negligible, as you can see from the above.

I’ll grant that it is not easy to establish what fraction of STFC’s budget should be spent on its “core” science and how much on managing facilities, but I think the balance has obviously gone way too far in one direction. I’m not the only one to think so. The probably deliberate decision to clobber astronomy grants flies in the face of the Institute of Physics Review of International Perceptions of UK Physics, carried out in 2005, which says

In summary, the state of astrophysics and solar system physics is relatively healthy at this time. Morale is good in the research community, particularly among the young, and wise investments seem to have been made since the 2000 review. Attention will need to be paid over the next five years to foster the astronomical observing community so as to recoup the investment in large telescope access.

STFC has done many things since its creation in 2007, but fostering the astronomical observing community is definitely not amongst them. Instead it has slashed the postdocs needed to collect, reduce and analyse the data coming from the facilities we paid so much to access.

I still don’t know what UK astronomy did to deserve the kick in the teeth it received in 2006 which precipitated the steep decline shown in the graph. Remember that this was before the credit crunch, which really took hold in 2008, so the cuts imposed STFC were clearly not in response to that. The message consistently being put out by the STFC Executive at the time was that it was spending “too much on science exploitation”, i.e. on doing science, and that a larger slice of the cake needed to be devoted to facilities and operations.

I suspect that the backlash against astronomy was led by senior figures in the Treasury who did not, still do not, and probably never will, see science as worth doing for its own sake rather than as a way of subsidising industry. I suspect also some senior figures in  UK Physics were not sorry to see the astronomical arrivistes get their comeuppance. I have encountered a number of distinguished physicists – usually of the condensed matter persuasion – who clearly resented the new wave of astronomers arriving in their departments. As long as they bring in more students, take on heavy teaching loads and don’t ask for expensive equipment then astronomers are fine, but what they do isn’t really proper physics is it?

But precisely who it was that was behind the strange demise of British astronomy is now not the main issue. The real question is what can be done about it starting from where we are now.

As things stand under the current STFC leadership, the grant line will stay roughly level in cash terms for the next three years. Adding in the effect of inflation that means the number of postdoc grants will slowly dwindle. Better than the last few years, but hardly grounds for celebration. The steady attrition of grant funding will eventually push many excellent university research groups over the edge and prematurely terminate many promising scientific careers.

STFC will be looking for a new Chief Executive very soon, and that raises at  the admittedly faint hope that some things might change for the better. What we need is a someone  who is prepared to champion fundamental research because he or she actually believes in it;  the  bedgrudging attempts of the current Chief Executive simply don’t convince in this regard.

Whether we get someone who fits the bill remains to be seen. If we don’t the future for UK astronomy looks very bleak.


Share/Bookmark

Important News from STFC

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on December 4, 2010 by telescoper

Donning my community service hat,  I’ll just pass on some important news from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) concerning Astronomy research grants. The message is contained in an email that has been circulated concerning the new grant system and you can also find it at Paul Crowther’s website here. I urge all astronomers to read the text in full. I believe separate instructions are going out to particle physics and nuclear physics groups concerning their grants.

The main points are that:

  • The new system of consolidated grants will be implemented for the forthcoming deadline (7th April 2011).
  • There will be no more standard grants.
  • Detailed guidance on how to apply the consolidated grants is not yet available.

A lot of questions remain to be answered, such as how on Earth people are going to be able to write a big proposal in the short time available when there are as yet no proper instructions, how groups with several existing grants will go about consolidating them when they all have different start and end dates, how the consolidated grants will be assessed, etc.

Also, it is now clear that results of the existing grant round (for grants due to start in April 2011) will not be forthcoming until January at the earliest, so that Swindon Office will be trying to sort out the new system at the same time as trying to complete the last round of the old one.

The combinations of delays to this round with the hasty implementation of a drastically different scheme for the next round is bound to cause a lot of problems both for STFC staff and researchers wanting to apply for grants, not to mention the Astronomy Grants Panel (of which I am a member).

The main purpose of this change is to save administrative costs at STFC, but it seems to me the main effect will be transfer an increased burden to universities, at least in the short term. Once again everything’s being done by the seat of the pants, with a complete lack of joined-up thinking.

Please don’t shoot the messenger, or anyone else on the AGP!


Share/Bookmark

The New Scheme for STFC Research Grants

Posted in Science Politics with tags , on November 11, 2010 by telescoper

Quickly donning my Community Service hat, I thought I’d pass on a little bit of news from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to my avid readership (both of them).

You may recall that a few months ago STFC sent out a consultation document to its “community”, in which departments were asked to comment on three proposals for a new system of research grant funding.

Well, the Committee responsible for considering this issue has now reported back in a lengthy document that can be found here.

So which of the three options are they recommending, do I hear you ask? Well, actually, none of them.

What they are in fact recommending, in essence, is that in future there will only be a single three-year “consolidated” grant per department in each discipline (e.g. particle physics or astronomy). The security of the existing (five-year) rolling grants will all but vanish, although a vestigial element of this will be retained by allowing some part of the three-year allocation to be spent over a 4 year period. What will also be lost is the flexibility of the current standard 3-year grants to provide a small amount of funding for novel ideas by individual researchers. In the new system, all scientists in a given department will be allowed to apply only once every three years.

The proposal clearly sounds the death knell for any form of “responsiveness” in grant funding from STFC, further strengthening the impression (which has been growing for many years) the Executive wishes to impose a rigid top-down management on all its science programmes.

It looks to me like they have combined the least attractive aspects of the three proposals into a single scheme that is considerably worse, from the point of view of delivering science, than the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, STFC Council has endorsed the new proposal and it looks like it is now going to be implemented.

One might wonder what was the point of consulting on three alternatives and then implementing something completely different to all of them, but the answer to that appears to be simply the desire to save administrative costs.

I’m sure there’ll be comments and reaction to this announcement, so please feel free to add yours through the box below!


Share/Bookmark

The Waiting Game

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on November 4, 2010 by telescoper

I thought I’d briefly don my “community service” hat and send a message to any astronomers reading this who have “responsive mode” grant applications currently under review by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Obviously I can’t discuss any details here (or anywhere else for that matter), but I’ve had a few email enquiries about when the results are likely to be known. I’m sure the chair of the Astronomy Grants Panel, Andy Lawrence (aka the e-astronomer) has had even more. It seems worth posting a brief message to make the situation as clear as possible to anyone waiting for news.

The current situation is that all the rolling grant specialist panel presentations have now finished, but the full AGP has to reconvene later in November to complete the process of assigning a final ranking to all the applications.

The process is, therefore, ongoing. It would be even if it were not for the fact that the Comprehensive Spending Review results were only announced on 20th October. It will therefore still be some time before STFC knows its budget for the next few years, and only when it knows that can it produce a delivery plan that stipulates how much of its funding will be available for research grants. And only after that is done will the Astronomy Grants Panel be able to determine its final proritisation, after which STFC will decide precisely which proposals will be funded and which don’t make the cut. In an ideal world this process would be finished by the end of this calendar year, but I’m afraid there’s quite a lot of evidence that we don’t live in an ideal world, especially as science funding is concerned.

So there you have the situation as clear as I can make it, which isn’t very clear at all. You’ll all just have to wait. The most important thing is not to assume that it’s going to be bad news if you hear nothing quickly…

Diem noctis exspectatione perdunt, noctem lucis metu.

(Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae)


Share/Bookmark

Student Grants and/or Research Loans

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on September 9, 2010 by telescoper

I’m still a bit depressed after the events I blogged about yesterday. Some days you wonder why you bother, and this has been one of them. However, at least it’s got me rattled enough to stand back and think about the state of the UK university system in more general terms so I thought I’d jot down an idea which is probably barking mad, but has been at the back of my mind for some time.

The basic point is that universities essentially do two things, teaching and research. However, when you think about it, there’s a fundamental inconsistency in the way these are funded. It seems to me that correcting this anomaly could significantly improve  both the main benefits  universities contribute to the UK economy.

First, research. I wrote yesterday about using taxpayer’s money to fund research in universities:

If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way.

I’ve just remembered that a similar thing was said in in the Times Higher recently, in a piece about the new President of the Royal Astronomical Society:

Notwithstanding the Royal Academy of Engineering’s “very unfortunate” recent submission to the government spending review – which argued that the need to rebalance the UK economy required public spending to be concentrated on applied science – Professor Davies is confident he can make a good case for spending on astrophysics to be protected.

Research with market potential can already access funding from venture capitalists, he argued, while cautioning the government against attempting to predict the economic impact of different subjects.

This is pretty much the opposite of what the Treasury thinks. It wants to concentrate public funds in projects that  can demonstrate immediate commercial potential. Taxpayer’s money used in this way ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs if the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t,  the grant has effectively been wasted. My proposal, therefore, is  to phase out research grants for groups that want to concentrate on commercially motivated research and replace them with research loans. If the claims they make to secure the advance are justified they should have no problem repaying it  from the profits they make from patent income or other forms of exploitation. If not, then they will have to pay back the loan from their own funds (as well as being exposed as bullshit merchants). In the current economic situation the loans could be made at very low interest rates and still save a huge amount of the current research budget for higher education. Indeed after a few years – suggest the loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, it would be self-financing. I think a large fraction of research in the Applied Sciences and Engineering should be funded in this way.

The money saved by replacing grants  to commercially driven research groups with loans could be re-invested in those areas where public investment is really needed, such as pure science and medicine. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, but that is accidental and likely to appear only in the very long term. The real motivation of doing this kind of research is to enrich the knowledge base of the UK and the world in general. In other words, it’s for the public good. Remember that?

Most of you probably think that this is a crazy idea, but if you do I’ll ask you to now think about how the government funds teaching in universities and ask yourself why research is handled in such a  different way.

Way back in the mists of time when I was a student, I didn’t have to pay fees and even got a maintenance grant from the government that was more-or-less sufficient to live on. That system changed so that students don’t get grants any more, but may qualify for loans. They also have to pay a contribution to their fees, but the government still pays an amount directly to the university on their behalf.

This change of policy happened because the (then) Labour government wanted to boost the rate of participation in universities, but didn’t think the taxpayer should pay the whole cost. The logic goes that the students benefit from their education, e.g. in terms of increased earnings over their working lifetime, so they should pay a contribution to it.

The problem with all this is that it has led to a huge increase in enrolment on degree courses in “vocational” areas such as Leisure & Tourism, Media Studies, and Business while traditional courses, such as those in STEM disciplines, providing the sort of rigorous intellectual training that is essential for many sectors of the economy, have struggled to keep up. This is partly because subjects like Mathematics and Physics are difficult, partly because they are expensive, and partly because the UK school system has ceased to function as preparation for such courses.

I’m by no means against universities supplying training in vocational subjects, but because these are the areas where the primary beneficiary is indeed the student, I don’t think the government should subsidise them as much as the more rigorous courses that we really need to encourage the brightest students to take up.

The fix I’d propose for this within the current tightly constrained budget is to cut government funding for vocational subjects and use the money to subsidise those courses contributing to the intellectual wealth of the country. I don’t mean just science, incidentally, I think we have a big problem with participation many other areas, such as modern languages. The best students – in chosen areas – should not only get their fees paid, they should also get maintenance grants as in the old days. Students should not be prevented from doing, e.g., a Business studies degree, or from doing anything without a state scholarship, but should understand that they have to pay for it.

If it’s fair to ask students to contribute to their teaching, it’s fair to ask commercial companies to pay for the research that they exploit. Just as student grants should be re-introduced for certain disciplines, so should research loans be introduced for others. You know it makes sense.

However, if you want to tell me why it doesn’t, via the comments box, please feel free!


Share/Bookmark