Archive for Science funding

Commercially-driven research should be funded by loans, not grants

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on October 27, 2015 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a very quick comment on an item in yesterday’s Financial Times. The article may be behind a paywall, so here’s a short extract giving the essential point:

Ministers are considering proposals to replace research grants to industry with loans, in a move that business leaders fear would damage Britain’s ability to innovate.

The reason for mentioning this is that I suggested the very same idea on this blog about five years ago. My general point was the logical inconsistency in swapping grants for loans in the case of university students on the grounds that they are the beneficiaries of education and should be able to pay back the investment through earnings, when the same argument is not applied to businesses that profit from university-based research. I wonder if BIS have been reading this blog again?

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat here my personal opinion view 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, scientific research.

This is pretty much the opposite of what the Treasury seems to have been thinking for the last five years. 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 (either in universities or in business) 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.

Science is Vital at the Conway Hall

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on October 27, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday, as promised, I went up to London to attend the Science is Vital event at the Conway Hall.I was a bit worried that I might not make it in time for the 7 o’clock kick-off, but it turned out that a meeting I was attending finished earlier than expected and I got to the venue in good time.

It was a fun evening, but you don’t need to take my word for it. Here is a video of the whole thing, which is basically a recording of the live webstream.  I learned a lot, especially from Andrew Steele (who appears early on); check out his website here. Did you know for example that the average expenditure per person per year in the UK on alcohol is £600, while the average expenditure per person per year in the UK on cancer research is a paltry £2.80?

P.S. There’s a nice discussion of wider issues raised by the Science is Vital campaign in today’s Guardian.

Science Is Vital, So Don’t Let It Be Strangled.

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on March 15, 2015 by telescoper

The General Election looming on the horizon could prove to be a watershed for scientific research in the United Kingdom. In the period immediately following the 2010 Election there was a great deal of nervousness about the possibility of huge cuts to spending on research. One of the most effective campaigns to persuade the new government against slashing funding for science on the grounds that scientific research was likely to be the principal fuel for any economic recovery was led by Science is Vital. I have written a few posts about this organisation.

The scientific community breathed a collective sigh of relief in autumn 2010 when the UK Government announced that research funding would be “ring-fenced” and maintained in cash terms for the duration of the Parliament. Things could have been far worse, as they have been in other parts of the public sector, but over the years the effect of inflation has been that this “flat cash” settlement involves a slow strangulation as opposed to a quick fall of the axe.

A recent piece in the Guardian includes this picture, which speaks for itself:

Science_spendingThe United Kingdom now spends less than 0.5% of its GDP on research, and this fraction is falling rapidly. We are now ranked last in the G8 by this criterion, way behind the USA and Germany. Why are we in this country so unbelievably miserly abou funding research? Other countries seem to recognize its important, so why can’t our politicians see it? We should be increasing our investment in science, not letting it wither away like this.

It seems to me that much more of this squeeze and we’ll be needing to close down major facilities and start withdrawing from important international collaborations. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is particularly vulnerable, as such a large fraction of its budget is committed to long-term projects. It’s already trimmed funding for other activities to the bone, with research grants under particularly intense pressure. Will the ongoing Nurse Review of the Research Councils spell doom for STFC, as many of my colleagues think? Will be research funding  be transferred rom universities into research institutes?

Anyway, it seems an appropriate time to advertise the latest campaign from Science is Vital, which involves writing to candidates (including incumbent MPs) in your constituency to Tell Them That Science Is Vital. You might consider including some of the following, or others suggested by the website. If you’re a scientist, describe why your research is important. Here are some suggestions. If there is a local research institute in your constituency, explain how important it is to your local economy (how many people it employs, for example). If you’re a patient, or someone who cares for a patient, say how important you think research into that disease. Ask your candidate or MP to endorse the Science is Vital campaign to increase public funding of science to 0.8% of GDP. And if you do write, remember that the economic argument for investing research isn’t the only one…

STFC Consolidated Grants Review

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2014 by telescoper

It’s been quite a while since I last put my community service hat on while writing a blog post, but here’s an opportunity. Last week the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) published a Review of the Implementation of Consolidated Grants, which can be found in its entirety here (PDF). I encourage all concerned to read it.

Once upon a time I served on the Astronomy Grants Panel whose job it was to make recommendations on funding for Astronomy through the Consolidated Grant Scheme, though this review covers the implementation across the entire STFC remit, including Nuclear Physics, Particle Physics (Theory), Particle Physics (Experiment) and Astronomy (which includes solar-terrestrial physics and space science). It’s quite interesting to see differences in how the scheme has been implemented across these various disciplines, but I’ll just include here a couple of comments on the Astronomy side of things.

First, here is a table showing the number of academic staff for whom support was requested over the three years for which the consolidated grant system has been in existence (2011, 2012 and 2013 for rounds 1, 2 and 3 respectively).  You can see that the overall success rate was slightly better in round 3, possibly due to applicants learning more about the process over the cycle, but otherwise the outcomes seem reasonably consistent:


The last three rows of this table  on the other hand show quite clearly the impact of the “flat cash” settlement for STFC science funding on Postdoctoral Research Assistant (PDRA) support:

Constant cash means ongoing cuts in real terms; there were 11.6% fewer Astronomy PDRAs supported in 2013 than in 2011. Job prospects for the next generation of astronomers continue to dwindle…

Any other comments, either on these tables or on the report as a whole, are welcome through the comments box.


More Cuts to University Funding

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 11, 2014 by telescoper

Grim news arrived yesterday with the announcement by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills of further deep cuts in funding for Higher Education in England. This announcement has been delayed due to internal wrangling over the allocation of funds but in the end the grant letter to HEFCE makes little attempt to sugar the pill:

The settlement will mean reductions in HEFCE funding for higher education institutions in 2014-15 and again in 2015-16 beyond those accounted for by the switch to publicly funded tuition fees. The Government has asked HEFCE to deliver the reductions in ways which protect as far as possible high-cost subjects (including STEM), widening participation (which is funded via the HEFCE Student Opportunity allocation), and small and specialist institutions.

The science budget is, of course, “ring-fenced” which means that recurrent funding for that is maintained at £1,573 million, the same cash levels as 2013-14. This has, for example, translated into the expected flat cash settlement for the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), although there has been some rejigging of the way this money is allocated within STFC, and an apparent increase in funds available for international subscriptions. At least this should unblock the numerous programmes in STFC and elsewhere in the Research Councils that have been on hold pending the final budget allocations.

That said, the overall picture looks very bleak for Higher Education. The really important figure for HEFCE is buried in Annex 2 of the latest grant letter, which reveals that, including the ring-fenced funds, HEFCE will have just £4,091 million to allocate in 2014/15. The corresponding figure for the current year, 2013/14, was £5,014 million. That’s a cut in cash terms of an eye-watering 18.4%.

The scale of the cuts makes it even more likely that if they continue there will be very little money available for HEFCE to allocate as a result of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, in which case the vast expenditure across the sector preparing for that exercise may will have been wasted too.

For the time being, however, it seems that research has been spared the axe. The bulk of the cuts will therefore fall on teaching grants. HEFCE has been instructed to try to protect STEM subjects as it cuts expenditure on teaching, but will it be able to? The extra funds that have previously supplemented tuition fees have been steadily whittled away anyway, so expensive subjects like Physics only get about £1000 per year more than Arts subjects. There is already a strong incentive in the current funding model for universities to expand cheap subjects. That pressure will only increase with this new settlement.

The last paragraph of the grant letter says:

We recognise that our universities are one of our most valuable national assets. Higher education transforms people’s lives through excellent teaching and transforms society through research and the application of knowledge. The Government’s reforms have laid the foundations for a more securely funded, stronger, more confident and more responsive higher education sector. We will continue to work with the Council and the sector to communicate the enduring value of higher education to potential students and the wider world.

I’m sure readers of this blog will forgive me if I suggest that these words are rendered meaningless by the scale of the cuts announced in the grant letter. If the government really regarded our universities as “valuable national assets” it would be increasing investment in them, not cutting it. What worries me most is that these cuts will never be reversed, whatever the complexion of the next government as there seems to be more enthusiasm across the political spectrum for continued cuts than for investment in the future education of our young people. I’m increasingly ashamed of the legacy being left by my own generation.


Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on May 15, 2012 by telescoper

I woke up this morning to find via Twitter an interesting blog post about a demonstration in London against the policies of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

For those of you not up with the ins and outs of the UK science funding regime, EPSRC is the agency that funds the more mainstream areas of physics (as well as chemistry, engineering and some mathematics) while the more exotic bits (particle physics, nuclear physics and astronomy) are the responsibility of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The current protest seems to be lead by a number of eminent chemists, including Prof. Sir Harry Kroto, Prof. Sir John Cadogan and Prof. Anthony Barrett.

Almost five years ago – was it really so long? – owing to a mixture of funding cuts and incompetent management, STFC was born into a financial crisis that made many of us doing astronomy and particle physics wish that we also were protected by the friendly hands of EPSRC rather than left out in the cold as we felt we were at STFC. Things have slowly improved at STFC, which now has an executive team that actually seems to listen to its community as well as speaking the language that Whitehall wants to hear. Funding is still tight, but STFC is a noticeably happier ship now than it was it first launched.

In the meantime, any envy we might have had about our colleagues in, e.g., condensed matter physics being safer in the EPSRC stable has now well and truly evaporated. Their strategy, “Shaping Capability“, expressed in dreadful management-speak, involves the imposition of arbitrary priorities such as the restriction of fellowship applications to certain areas chosen by The Management. Worse, its new funding rules attempt to target funding at commercially-driven research. Dark clouds are gathering in the “blue skies” under which UK science has hitherto flourished.

The unresponsive top-down character of EPSRC has strengthened under the leadership of David Delpy who must have been made in the same factory as Keith Mason, former Chief Executive of STFC, whose diplomatic skills were similarly remarkable by their absence.

For some reason, this reminds me of the following quote from Smiley’s People

In my time, Peter Guillam, I’ve seen Whitehall skirts go up and come down again. I’ve listened to all the excellent argument for doing nothing, and reaped the consequent frightful harvest. I’ve watched people hop up and down and call it progress. I’ve seen good men go to the wall and the idiots get promoted with a dazzling regularity.

I’ve argued before that I think EPSRC’s approach is fundamentally wrong. When taxpayers’ money used is used to generate immediate commercial returns, it ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs when the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t, the grant has effectively been wasted. Commercial Impact should not be a factor in awarding public funding, because it is perfectly suited as a criterion for attracting private funding. This is why we have a national fiscal policy: the only justification for levying taxation is to fund projects which will not yield short-term economic returns. There is no reason to spend public money on commercial projects: we need to justify pure research by a non-economic valuation.

This morning EPSRC have issued a press release calling upon scientists to work together ahead of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. It doesn’t mention the demonstration, or other manifestations of unrest within the EPSRC community, but instead re-asserts the need for its so-called strategy, with a clear message not to rock the boat ahead of the next Comprehensive Spending Review.

I’ve heard that argument many times in the context of STFC during its crisis period. I firmly believe that rocking the boat in that case helped it get off the rocks. It remains to be seen whether the EPSRC protest, which is currently rather small, will gather enough momentum to make a difference. It all depends on what fraction of EPSRC scientists have actually signed up to the Delpy Agenda. Is the new campaign representative of the views of the EPSRC community? No doubt many research groups will be prospering under the new regime, at least in the short term. Time alone will tell what the long-term impact of short-termism will be.

Worries for Science in Spain

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , on March 10, 2012 by telescoper

I recently received the following email letter, concerning the state of science funding in Spain.  As well as passing it on to colleagues I thought I would post it on this blog where it might have wider impact:

Dear colleague,

You probably know very well how the global crisis is affecting southern Europe, and in particular Spain. Some of us are promoting a campaign among the worlwide scientific community to prevent our conservative government from straining even more the science system in Spain, that so many successes has obtained in the last decade, but whose future is now at stake.

In the next few weeks, and contravening recommendation from the European Commission stating that public deficit control measures should not affect Research and Development (R&D) and innovation, the Spanish Government and Parliament could approve a State Budget for 2012 that would cause considerable long-term damage to the already weakened Spanish research system, contributing to its collapse.

There is an open letter that we are sending to distinguished scientists all over the world, including many Nobel Prize Winners and Members of Academies of Science, asking them to sign, support the motion and spread the word:

Please do help us by signing the letter and passing it on to your colleagues.

Kind regards,

Alexander Knebe

The “open letter” you can read by clicking on the link contains some interesting – and alarming – information that has serious implications for our colleagues not only in Spain but elsewhere in Europe. Take a look, for example, at the following picture that shows the fraction of GDP being invested in science:

This isn’t just about Spain, although the situation is clearly especially serious for Spanish Science. It’s a timely reminder that the UK is also well below the EU average in terms of science spend. Is it a coincidence that the EU’s worst-performing economies are all on the right of this figure? Is that where we want the UK to be too?


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