Tag: policy

Science is Vital – history repeating 1667

I’m reading Thomas Sprat’s “History of the Royal Society of London, for the improving of Natural Knowledge“* published in 1667. He’s just mentioned that following the return of Charles II much spending has been made on public works and goes on to say:

This general Temper being well weigh’d; it cannot be imagin’d that the Nation will withdraw its Assistance from the Royal Society alone; which does not intend to stop at some particular Benefit but goes to the Root of all noble Inventions, and proposes an infallible Course to make England the Glory of the Western World.

This seems terribly relevant to current circumstances, he does spoil it slightly by going on to say:

There is scarce any Thing has more hindered the true Philosophy than a Vain Opinion, that men have taken up, that Nothing could be done in it, to any purpose, but upon a vast Charge, and a mighty Revenue.

 Old Sprat had a fine way with words!

*Quotes are from p78-79

Making Science and Engineering a Policy Issue

This is a post on the debate organised by the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK featuring the science spokesmen of the Conservatives (Adam Afriyie), Labour (Lord Drayson) and Liberal Democrat (Evan Harris) parties. The debate was structured around pre-selected questions presented to the panel. It was chaired by Roger Highfield, editor of New Scientist and hosted at the Institute of Engineering and Technology.

Lord Drayson benefited from not being on the end of another sustained assault regarding the Science and Technology Facilities Council funding difficulties which have been a centrepiece of most of his recent public outings in this type of forum. The consensus seemed to be that outside problems with the STFC, science and technology had done quite well under Labour. The concerns over impact, which I discussed in a previous post made a showing, my view is that Impact is important but so is the way you measure and use it and the current ideas don’t seem to be going in the right direction. Lord Drayson was able to make a fair defence of recent government policy over stimulus which focuses on the shorter term when compared to stimulus packages in other countries, but he seemed shaky over how cuts in the higher education budget would be achieved.

Adam Afriyie suffered from the disadvantage of being in a party who seem to have consciously steered themselves away from concrete policy statements, spending a lot of time criticising the government but unable to enunciate much clear policy of their own. Concrete policies included a deferment of the REF Impact statements for 2 years (announced this morning), and the waiving of student debts for those going on to teach science. The statement that the “zeitgeist” of David Cameron would lead to increased charitable giving to the medical was met with the online equivalent of wry laughter, as a policy this seems particularly empty. The enthusiastic support of Chris Grayling (Tory shadow home secretary) for the sacking of Professor Nutt and his own rather confused position on the hiring and firing of scientific advisors, did not go down well.

Evan Harris, described in the Daily Mail as “Dr Death“, seemed to do particularly well, he may well have known that the audience was broadly on his side, as a party not in power the Liberal Democrats have not had the opportunity to wind up the science and technology community through the routine decisions of government. Furthermore academic scientists at least could well be described as “broadly lefty”. However when engaged in the politic-ing which was inevitable when bringing together politicians in the run up to a general election, he did appear to apply his own twist rather than an obvious parroting of the party line. On the policy front: the Liberal Democrat conference recently approved an amendment, which puts meat on more general mutterings that “something must be done” about libel reform. He also highlighted, as a policy, that money used in the recently rescinded cut in VAT could have gone more usefully into a scientific stimulus package.
All of the spokesman were clear on the importance of science in both policy decisions and in economic terms, and they all seemed keen to make both politicians and civil service scientifically literate.
I believe the existence of this debate is welcome, I don’t recall it happening in the run up to previous elections. To my mind the relatively new technology of a webcast supplemented by background twitter feed (on the #scidebate hashtag), really helps facilitate this debate, particularly in a. The larger question is how do we make science an issue for the wider voting public, given it’s significant policy and economic impact.
It seems inevitable that the next few years will involve some pain in the science and technology sector, as it has across most areas of government. None of the speakers gave any indication that science and technology will receive special treatment over the next few years.

Grant Applications II

This post is probably not for you, unless you’re interested in grant applications!

I touched on grant applications a few posts ago with reference to the THES debate on blue-skies research, I mentioned my abysmal grant application record, the generally low success rate and the pain involved for all concerned. Here I intend to add a few additional comments arising, in part, from my experience in industry.

It’s worth stating what I believe the grant application process is for: on the face of it is a method by which discretionary funding is provided to researchers to provide resources for research; that is to say equipment, consumables and personnel. However, in addition to this it has a hidden purpose in that it is felt by many to be part of an rating process for researchers. Researchers believe that the more grant applications they win, the higher their ranking. Therefore top-down attempts to limit the number of applications a researcher can make cause consternation because they impact on the perceived worth of that researcher. This additional function is not explicit, and in a way it arises for a lack of any better measure of apparent researcher worth.

I believe this perception arises because university departments don’t do a very good job of career management for academics. As an employee of a very large company, I have regular discussions about where my career within the company is going – indeed in my first year I spent about an hour and half talking about just this subject, whilst in academia I *never* in 8 years post-doctoral employment, had a formal discussion about my career development. This applies both to those who have successfully made it to permanent lecturing positions, and the many post-doctoral research assistants who aspire to a limited number of permanent posts.

The grant application process takes no account of an attempt to create a wider research program. Grant applications are made to acquire a specific piece of equipment and/or someone to carry out the research proposed. Typically the equipment will be used long after the end of the grant, and there will be no formal mechanism of replacement.

I am still involved in writing internal research proposals, these differ in two ways from grant applications. Firstly, they are much shorter than grant applications – a couple of sides of A4; secondly, they are much more concerned with all the things ‘around’ the core of the proposal rather than an explicit description of the research to be done. Funding and allocation of resources is made at the level of projects comprising of order 10 or more people, rather than at the 1 or 2 researcher level at which the typical grant application aims. Furthermore there is a longer cascade in the resource allocation process, rather than each ‘end user’ approaching the holder of a central pot, resources are allocated at a higher level. This reduces the number of people in the grant application business and means that rounds of allocation are smaller affairs.

The winning of grants appears to contain a large element of lottery, that is to say the outcome depends to a moderate degree on chance. To improve your chances of winning a lottery, you buy more tickets. This has caused the EPSRC, at least, problems since although the amount available for grants has increased, the amount applied for has increased more rapidly.

There are two solutions to the problem of researcher disillusionment through the low success rate of grant applications, one is to increase the amount of cash available (which is unlikely to happen in the current economic climate), the other is to reduce the number of grant applications made – here the problem is how to do this in an equitable fashion. Part of the problem here is that the number of potential researchers is governed by the number of people required to teach the undergraduates population, rather than a judgement on the number of people required to consume the research allocation pot.

So what does this suggest for the grant application process:
1. Better career management for academics, in order that the grant application process is not used as a rating tool for academics;
2. Devolution of spending to a lower level;
3. More thought paid to providing continuity.

I guess in my ideal world an academic will develop a coherent, over-arching research plan which is executed in pieces by application to research funds at something like the university scale. The success of such applications depends largely on past performance, and on the coherence or otherwise of the over-arching research plan rather than an attempt to evaluate the quality of a particular piece of research, or idea, in advance.

It’s worth noting that academic research is seriously difficult, in that your ideas should be globally competitive – you should be developing thoughts about how nature operates at that are unique. Your competition is thousands of other, very clever researchers spread across the world. Compared to this, my job as an industrial researcher is easier – I need to communicate the answer to the question at hand to the appropriate person, if the answer already exists then that’s fine. Also I get to do more research with my own hands than I would in an equivalent position as an academic.

There may be blue skies ahead

You have to feel sorry for Lord Drayson. At a time when he is doing his best to stand up for science and the funding of science in what are very difficult economic circumstances, where every department in government must show it’s worth, scientists appear to be trying to hack his legs off; by balking at the proposal that they should explain their impact on society and insisting that they should be left to do ‘blue skies’ research. I refer to the recent debate hosted by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES): “Blue skies ahead? The prospects for UK science“, a discussion which centred around the impact of science on society and how you might increase that impact, how impact is evaluated, the role of blue skies research and the crisis at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

In this post I’ll try to explain why scientists are so impassioned about the subject of impact assessment and make a couple of suggestions as to how we might collectively do this better.

Impact means several things in this context: there is the HEFCE Impact pilot exercise, which is retrospective and in pilot phase at the moment and there are impact statements in grant applications which were introduced this year which should provide a prediction of the economic and societal impact of the work proposed. I suspect it is the impact statements in grant applications which are causing the real concern here, and I also suspect that Lord Drayson was talking primarily about the former, and the audience and panel were talking about the latter at the THES event.

Before I go on I will provide a short autobiography to provide context for my comments: I’m currently a research scientist in a large company, I’ve been here for 5 years but until the age of 35 I was an academic scientist, rising to the position of tenured lecturer in the physics department of what is now Manchester University. The opinions I present here are entirely my own.

Putting aside the question of how good a scientist I am; I can tell you one thing for certain: I’m an incredibly bad at writing successful grant applications! Really bad, awful, abysmal. I wrote about 8 over my relatively short period as a grant writer and they all failed (and not even by a small margin). I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Exactly what grant applications mean varies from subject to subject, but in my field: experimental laboratory-scale soft matter physics it’s important: in order to do research you need people and equipment. Typically grant applications are written to get 2-3 years of postdoctoral research assistant, or a PhD student and some equipment. Your department will rate itself on the grant funding it obtains, and you on your contribution to that figure. You will definitely feel that winning grants is something you have to do to succeed in your job. You can eke out an existence without grants, funding students from other sources and helping colleagues with successful grant applications, throwing yourself into teaching but it doesn’t feel like the way you’re supposed to do it.

I find it difficult to put into words how much I loathed the whole grant application process. A grant application requires you to describe the research you’re going to do over the next few years, and how the results will be world-class. The average success rate is about 20% (disputed) in the field in which I was applying. Once written the grant applications are sent to reviewers – actually that means someone just like you – it’s peer review. Reviewers know full well that if they rate an application “excellent” as opposed to “outstanding” in any one of several areas they are damning the application to failure. Reviews go forward to a panel who plough through huge numbers of these things (about 5 times as many as they are going to fund), then rank them. Funding is given to those at the top of the list, working down until the available cash is exhausted. There are serious questions as to whether we can rank schools accurately, here we try to do it for world-class research. It’s a grim process for all involved.

It’s in this context that the new impact statements are introduced, potentially these contribute 25% to the grant decision. As an grant application writer I need this like I need another hole in the head! Writing the science part of the grant application is a work of pure fiction (I think it might have helped if I’d appreciated that when I was doing it), writing the impact statement: “The demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy” is going beyond that. This is forward looking, you’re being asked to quantify the future economic value of that bit of world-class research you’re going to do.

The problem is that university science can take a long time to trickle out, in a case I highlighted yesterday in what is a pretty applied area, research was having a very direct, specific impact 40 years after it was done. Prior to my grant seeking days my work as a PhD student, postdoc and ADR has been funded, at least in part by three separate companies – little word of the economic impact has made it back to me from these companies.

So this brings me to some concrete points:
Point 1: For many areas of research societal, economic impacts are diffuse and long term, and actually the academic proposing the research is not in the best position to determine those impacts. As an industrial researcher I’ve written business cases for doing external research, this is a very revealing exercise which I know I couldn’t have done as an academic because I simply wouldn’t have had the required information to hand. Impact statements should not be required on a “one per application” basis, they should be for whole subject fields and written in consultation with people with actual data on the economic and societal impacts.

Moving on to a second point, Lord Drayson very generously praised scientists in Britain for the quality of the science they do, but said the problem was in how this expertise is translated into wider society:
Point 2: Impact statements are purely about scientists, applying for grants in universities. The onus seems to be on scientists to fix a problem which has two sides. What are we doing about how society and industry interact with science?

In the end impact is about communication, it’s about understanding the preconceptions that other people bring to the party and addressing these preconceptions in the way you communicate. Although I described myself as a research scientist, I’m actually a science communicator in and industrial environment.

This whole blog is really about communicating what it’s like to be a scientist, how it feels, the little details of the tribe. The people I follow on twitter are all very clever, they do lots of different things and from a combination of tweets and blogs you learn about their lives. This is my contribution to that discussion, it’s a societal impact.