MONDAY, 3 MAY 2010
The global economic downturn left many nations considering how to best invest limited funds to promote future growth and prosperity, and it seems they took differing approaches regarding scientific funding. France, Germany and the US all aim to, or have already, increased science funding in various ways. In contrast, the British government is likely to cut research funding to help balance the books, whilst investment by independent charities may also be constrained by the economic situation. It seems the UK science community faces some lean years ahead. But how will these affect the researchers in academia and industry? Will this lead to a ‘brain drain’ of talent heading overseas in search of support, as suggested by Ralph Cicerone, president of the US National Academy of Sciences, at the AAAS meeting last February?
Of the many thousands of graduates and postgraduates in academic research, less than ten per cent will obtain permanent tenure and professorships. Most leave academic research and enter various professions. Yet the most obvious alternative – industry – may not be a safe choice either; Astra Zeneca, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline all announced global job cuts in the last few months.
So how can current research levels be sustained when money for investment is lacking? The UK has benefitted from a decade of increasing investment, and for its size has always punched well above its weight in producing high-quality research. The UK government argues that whilst overall science funding may fall, projects with ‘economic or social benefit’ will be prioritised. This requires the scientists to speculate on the future impact of a project when applying for funding, and assumes a simple linear model from knowledge to product. Yet few of the truly influential scientific discoveries that we rely on today could ever have been predicted. There are many critics of this approach within the scientific community, including the Director of the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society and former Nobel laureates, who believe that such prescriptive funding will stifle the very innovation it seeks to encourage. Indeed, the Wellcome Trust has taken the diametrically opposite approach, restructuring their grants with the aim of giving strong scientists the time to explore the questions they think most interesting in the way they think best. As many of the greatest discoveries have resulted from serendipity or trying to explain an unexpected result, history suggests this approach is more likely to maintain the true spirit of scientific research and allow the possibility of innovation.
Another charge is that universities are poor at commercialising their discoveries. But this argument does not stand up when the facts are examined. The University of Cambridge and the spin-out companies that make up the Science Park in Milton provide a strong model of how scientific research, particularly in biosciences, has benefitted from investment and boosted the economy in return over the last decade. According to the recent report by the Royal Society, university spin-outs nationwide employed around 14,000 people in 2007-2008 and generated a turnover of £1.1 billion. Indeed, the same report highlights the success of the Cambridge model, emulated on a smaller scale in Oxford, Manchester, York, Southampton and Surrey.
What about in industry? Here, the belt tightening may be slowing, and the big companies are also exploring other options for financing R&D. One model is to fund academic groups to find new target genes or pathways, or to screen promising drug candidates. This may become more prevalent in the current economic climate, and may provide those academic groups with a valuable source of funding outside the traditional grant structures.
It seems that we are entering a period of reassessment regarding how the value of scientific research is viewed by government. The Royal Society report emphasises the need for sustained investment to ensure continued progress and economic benefit, and warns that reducing funding even over a short period may have long-term consequences. This concern is also echoed in a report by the Science Advisory Committee of MPs, published just before the Budget. We can hope that the warnings are heeded and that there is greater consultation before the final allocation. Ultimately, the final picture remains unclear, however it seems that, in the words of Bob Dylan, ‘the times, they are a’changin’.
Gemma Thornton is a postdoc in the Department of Medical Genetic