UK Criterion 2?

February 12th, 2009

Posted by: admin

An article in the Times Higher Education reveals a classic example of the debate about what society (and government) can and should expect from the scientists who receive public support of their research. A few quotations will summarize:

In a letter in this issue of Times Higher Education, the group calls for academics to rebel against new rules that state that the potential financial or social effects of research must be highlighted in a two-page “impact summary” in grant applications.

The requirement to provide a summary, answering questions about who might benefit from the research and how a financial return could be ensured, is being phased in by the UK’s seven research councils. The summary will be used by peer reviewers as a factor when determining which applications receive funding.

The scientists suggest two problems with this: 1. that they should not be expected to predict potential outcomes of their research, the results of which are highly uncertain, and 2. that this will shift the balance of funding away from “blue skies” research:

“The academic community must stand up,” said Professor Braben, adding that history showed that even the most seemingly inapplicable of scientific discoveries could yield huge economic benefits, such as the development of lasers.

“You cannot command developments at the frontier, it is not possible,” Professor Braben said.

He added that the new policy spelt the end for blue-skies research. “As soon as you identify a beneficiary for research … the councils are going to turn it around and say, right, deliver. And then it is applied research … You can’t have blue-skies research if you put caveats on it.”

For some reason it is still necessary to point out that the dichotomy between basic and applied research is false: applied research may lead to fundamental breakthroughs in knowledge, and “blue skies” research can lead to useful applications. But in any case, the scientists (not to mention one of the blog reactions) may be misunderstanding or misrepresenting just what these new expectations entail:

Philip Esler, chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, speaking on behalf of Research Councils UK, said: “The description of impact that the research councils work with is broad, encompassing not only the contribution research makes to the economy but also to society as a whole.

“It covers not only economic benefits, but also those related to public policy, quality of life, health and creative output. Research councils will not be disadvantaging blue-skies research, nor stifling creativity.

“The impact statement is not designed to ask peer reviewers or applicants to predict future benefits. It is intended to allow the applicant to highlight potential pathways to impact, especially through collaboration with partners, and to help the research councils support them in these activities.

This makes a great deal more sense. Almost all government funding for science is justified on the basis that it will contribute to these kinds of outcomes. Is it all that scandalous to suggest that scientists should have some understanding of the social contexts of the problems they are studying, or at least that they collaborate with someone who does?

One of the biggest challenges in science lies in connecting new knowledge with users who can actually benefit from it. This lesson is demonstrated in many different areas, particularly in climate science, where huge amounts of resources are spent on physical science that yields very little useful information to natural resource managers and other decision makers at whom this new knowledge is targeted. Making these connections requires partnerships between scientists and potential users, and it requires that scientists understand the context of knowledge use and/or decision making.

Of course, it is quite possible that a new requirement such as this could go the way of NSF’s criterion 2, which is seen by many as merely a formality with little meaning. Or, if it is poorly implemented, the new rules may place undue burden on researchers in terms of our expectations of them. But the emphasis on collaboration with partners is promising.

And the reaction of scientists to this effort reflect a dangerous sense of entitlement. Yes, the funding of science is important, but the science community is lucky to have it. If we take this at face value as an effort by the government to build stronger connections between science and the problems it is trying to solve, then resistance to such ideas starts to look pretty arrogant.


47 Responses to “UK Criterion 2?”

  1. David Bruggeman Says:

    When this first broke last month, I couldn’t find the actual statement. Were you any more fortunate, Ryan?

    Part of the UK resistance is probably connected to the pending results of the national research assessment, which supposedly will end up with large sums of money shifting between universities. Their funding model is a bit different from the U.S., there appears to be specific university endowments that are now under threat, and nobody on the bench appears to be happy.

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  3. Ryan Meyer Says:

    I was unable to find official documentation, but some googling led me to a post that describes it with a little bit more detail (and a little less outrage):

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  5. PaddikJ Says:

    I’ve had some harsh words for the Climate Sciences – the sometimes unbelievably sloppy work, arrogant attitudes, and the grantsmanship that drives the enterprise, but in this case I mostly agree w/ the academics.

    First, a point of clarification: From the article, “Blue Skies” seems like standard, neutral terminology in the UK; here in the US it’s a bit dissful, implying something overly idealistic & of no practical value what(or when)-soever. Would the term “pure research” be a fair translation?

    If so, I’d go almost so far as to state that not only should academics not be required to prove or speculate on the tangible benefits of their research, but should be actively discouraged from doing so. They should be encouraged to pursue whatever esoterica interests them, on the well founded belief that such research not only expands what we know, but also the boundaries of what we think is knowable. If it is true that not only is the Universe is stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine, then the best way to enlarge our imaginations is in the contemplation of Blue Skies.

    Coming back down from the blue skies, I also think that requiring researchers to speculate on the practical benefits of their work is at best a silly waste of time, and at worst a greased slide to the entanglement of science and policy; and we’ve already seen the distortions that has produced in climate studies.

    There are so many funding mechanisms – business & industry funds research for narrow, profitable ends, the military for its pragmatic reasons. The medical and drug industries long ago discovered that it’s more efficient to fund researchers in academe, with its physical infrastructure already in place, and an endless supply of absurdly cheap skilled labor in the form of Doctoral candidates & post-doc researchers (CU-Boulder’s Noble laureate Thomas Czech comes to mind – I actually worked on the drawings for his lab years ago). All of these, whether intended or not, yield benefits, and often far more broadly than anyone could have anticipated.

    But my last example was deliberate: The partnerships between industry and academe are also dangerous, with Universities being seduced away from pure research, and into some ethically dubious arrangements. Michael Crichton’s “Next” offers a good, if dyspeptic, view of this culture. Crichton always did his homework, and “Next” is no exception. There’s nothing new in this; in the early ‘70s, my own brother was aiming for a research career at some large University, but was so disgusted by the time he got his Ph.D. that he instead opted for a small student-oriented college.

    I don’t think there’s anything inherently arrogant about academics insisting on the primacy of Blue Sky research, but they do need to make their case clearly, as I tried to do above.

    Briefly then, I firmly believe that the academic ivory tower should be maintained and nurtured (but firmly segregated from the policy arena!).

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  7. Reed Coray Says:

    Thank you for providing a forum to discuss the topic of funding and requirements that should be placed on the agency receiving the funding.

    I can see both good and bad by requiring that scientists who receive government funding include in either/both their request for funds or their final reports a summary of social effects.

    The “Good”. I deplore the attitude of people who receive money and argue that it’s their due and what they do with the money is none of the doner’s business other than write a final report. I’d much rather their attitude was “Thank you very much for your donation. “Within the bounds of scientific integrity, is there anything I can do to demonstrate that I appreciate your donation?”

    The “Bad”. As I preceive the current state of government funding, your likelihood of getting funding is considerably increased if you argue that your study will in part either confirm anthropogenic global warming (AGW) or show that AGW is harmful. If you make no mention of AGW, you roll the dice and take your chances. If you state that your research is aimed at refuting AGW, you have almost guaranteed a negative response. I don’t mind the idea of having to identify the goals/results of your study, but I don’t like the idea of having to orient those goals/results in favor of the popular perception de jour”.

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  9. Ryan Meyer Says:

    PaddikJ – a couple of points.

    “They should be encouraged to pursue whatever esoterica interests them, on the well founded belief that such research not only expands what we know, but also the boundaries of what we think is knowable.”

    This is one perfectly valid reason to fund research, but only one of many. Most research is funded for other reasons. Both scientists, and the policy makers who allocate money to them, use far more specific justifications for the conduct of research, often citing particular areas or groups that will benefit. Wouldn’t you agree that with such claims comes a certain level of accountability?

    “requiring researchers to speculate on the practical benefits of their work is at best a silly waste of time, and at worst a greased slide to the entanglement of science and policy;”

    Policy and science cannot be disentangled. You cannot allocate public funds to science without engaging in a policy decision making process, and that process necessarily involves values-based arguments about which areas of science should get the funding. Scientists from every area of study engage in this process – it is not specific to issues like climate change.

    It turns out that many of the problems science hopes to address (disease, biodiversity loss, climate change, natural hazards…) have complex social, institutional, and political components. If scientists hoping to address these issues have a better understanding of those contexts and how their work might be of use, then there is far greater potential that their work might benefit society.

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  11. Ryan Meyer Says:

    Reed Coray
    I think you make two very good points. As with any metric or formal evaluation procedure, there is a danger that these things become mere political hoops that everyone jumps through with a certain degree of cynicism.

    My understanding is that NSF’s Criterion 2 is a bit like this, as it is often ignored or, at best, used as a tie-breaker. And really, NSF’s mission seems at odds with the institution of Criterion 2. They are seen as the nation’s “basic science” agency, focused on high risk, curiosity-driven research. If our society embraces these things as important, then fine. But if the values are changing in a way that demands more accountability, then simply superimposing a small hurdle like Criterion 2 is unlikely to have much impact on a big organization with a history and culture that categorically rejects such ideas.

    Another danger is that these guidelines be taken seriously in the review of proposals, but then not supported in a serious way during the execution and evaluation of the research. For example, if a research team spends lots of its time and money establishing partnerships with stakeholder groups, and is then evaluated solely on the basis of the journal publications resulting from the research, then the new guidelines can’t be all that effective.

    This may be as much, or more, of a problem for science managers than for scientists. How do we change the culture of science agencies, or the practice of science management, in ways that emphasize the kinds of values inherent in this decision by the UK Councils, while preserving the quality and integrity of science?

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  13. Philip Moriarty Says:


    As one of the co-signatories of the letter to the Times Higher Education (THE), I’d like to thank you for writing this post and for the debate you have prompted.

    You are missing a lot of the “back-story” associated with the letter, however. Moreover, I would be very careful with taking comments made by Research Councils UK (RCUK) representatives at face value. Please let me explain…

    The issue here is not that of arrogant “ivory tower” academics bemoaning the imposition of restrictions on their freedom to research. This is an unfortunate stereotyping of our position. We are publicly funded researchers and therefore have a duty to carry out research for the public good. But one must ask just what is meant by “the public good”. For example, is carrying out near-market research and development for multinational corporations – as is increasingly the case for Research Councils UK (RCUK)-funded research – in the public good?

    You quote Philip Esler, the Economic Impact champion for RCUK as stating: “It covers not only economic benefits, but also those related to public policy, quality of life, health and creative output.”

    Hmmm. This has been Esler’s argument for quite some time. Let’s try to get past the sophistry, however, and examine the facts. Here’s what it says on the website of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council: “We are planning to change our application form and case for support requirements to address the issue of the potential economic impact of research projects.” Similarly, last year the Chairman of EPSRC baldly stated that he saw no difference between “societal benefit” and “economic benefit”.

    Let’s be clear. Regardless of what Philip Esler claims, the research councils are implementing these changes in line with a strong government message that they want to see more short term economic impact from the research they fund. (See, for example, the Warry Report, Sainsbury Review, “Next Steps: 2004 – 2014″ documents produced in recent years). This not only betrays a staggering lack of understanding of just how science works (as is pointed out by PaddikJ in his comment above), it shows a remarkable lack of appreciation of fundamental economics.

    Given the lack of scientific expertise in Whitehall (only one member of the Cabinet or the Shadow Cabinet has a degree in a science subject) this is not so surprising. The research councils are not, however, just another government department and are managed by at least some who are scientifically literate. RCUK should operate autonomously (as enshrined in the Haldane principle [1]), rejecting short-term government “diktats” and carefully considering the long term health of the science base. Instead, they have evolved to the point where their only raison d’etre appears to be to align their funding strategies with government policy so as to secure as much money for science in each comprehensive spending review. A laudable aim in principle, but not when it entirely distorts the entire ethos of publicly-funded research in universities.

    My arguments on these points are described in more detail in a number of recent articles [1,2,3].

    Best wishes,


    [1] “Reclaiming academia from post-academia”, Nature Nanotechnology 3 60 (2008) [Free copy available here

    [2] “Public Science: A Public Good?” , Nanotech. Perceptions 4 101 (2008)

    [3] “Should the direction of research be democratised?” , R. Doubleday and P. Moriarty, Science and Public Affairs, Sept. 2008

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  15. Philip Moriarty Says:

    Further to the post above, I guess I should point out that it’s not our Science Minister (Paul Drayson) who has the degree in science. That’d be a little bit too much to ask, of course. Drayson does seem to have remarkable pseudoscientific qualifications , however…

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  17. PaddikJ Says:


    I basically agree with everything you say, and I should have been more clear, but the length of my comment was becoming worrisome.

    If a researcher makes a specific claim in a grant proposal, then accountability should be a condition of further funding. As you say, there are myriad reasons to fund research, which is why I included the subsequent paragraph. My poorly-made point was that with so many funding mechanisms, with so many agendas, the Ivory Tower stands alone as the haven for Blue Sky research (and BTW, was my translation correct?), and should be protected. The new rules to which T.H.E. objected seem like the proverbial first step towards utilitarianism.

    Of course it’s possible that they & I are over-reacting.

    I accept that science and policy cannot be disentangled, but I also think it should be resisted whenever possible. A standard pre-requisite for an EOB pushes towards entanglement, and more dangerously, to confirmation bias. In the basic research arena, maybe funding policy should encourage researchers to adopt a “We propose to test hypothesis X, by procedures A, B & C, and then see where the evidence leads us” style of proposal (and again, for brevity, I’m grossly simplifying). Conversely, proposals which smack of pre-conclusions (and political/social activism) should be discouraged (or ideally, ignored).

    (Perversely, we seem to have the exact opposite funding process, and not just in the earth sciences – the few researchers that dare speak up complain that it’s all but impossible to get a grant unless “climate change” or some such is included prominently in the proposal. Fact finding & testing are subverted to the desired outcome. This has led directly to absurdities such as studies showing more suicides in Italy, or greater risk of kidney stones in the American Southwest. Maybe it’s time for the Global Warming Sokal Hoax – invent the silliest, most outlandish effect of Global Warming, write a paper liberally larded with the most robust jargon, driving inexorably to the unprecedented conclusion, and see if Science or Nature will publish it.)

    Lastly, I believe that any research done on the public dime is public property (with a reasonable period of exclusive use – I understand that even academic research is a highly competitive game). All data, means & methods must be posted on a public server; the proposal must state when this will happen. This is a standard pre-requisite that I would completely support.

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  19. Ryan Meyer Says:

    Thank you for adding this background, and providing additional references. Indeed, I was unfamiliar with these parts of the story, and so was taking these statements at face value (a risky business, I know).

    Clearly, when policy makers see “no difference between ’societal benefit’ and ‘economic benefit,’” that is a serious problem for science, and any other policy area, for that matter. At the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, where I work, we have an entire project organized around developing non-economic models for policy analysis to provide an alternative to this unfortunate assumption. A good starting point, if you are interested in reading more is:

    Bozeman, Barry; D. Sarewitz. “Public Value Failures and Science Policy.” Science and Public Policy 32.2 (2005): 119-36.

    The most unfortunate aspect of debates such as this one is that there appear to be only two sides – “science for science’s sake,” and “science for economic benefit.” This perception leads each side to dig in, as scientists feel their only recourse is to argue for the (in reality false) linear model of innovation, in which the benefits are automatic, but unpredictable. Our goal with the project mentioned above is to add new dimensions to this, and expand the definition of “benefit” beyond economics.

    Thanks again for your comment.

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  21. glazer Says:

    To some extent we scientists do have some blame in this. For years when applying for funds as part of the general scrabble for gaining funds from the research councils we have tried to justify our reasons for requiring research money in terms of its benefit to society (my work will eventually lead to a cure for cancer etc etc). This we all did even in the good old days before EPSRC, Thatcher and all the top-down management of science that we have experienced in the last 20 years. In a sense, what happened under Thatcher and again today is that the government is saying: if this is why you are doing research then let economic and social benefit be the criterion. I have been in the basic research business now for 44 years and like everyone else have argued that somehow my arcane bit of research on things like “phase transitions in crystals” was important for the national good. Now it may well be that some of the work did create some benefit, but most of it I would say is less tangible. Its pay-off is that it contributes to a picture that could have some benefit further down the line. The fact is that when we go through the motions, and “motions” is really what this is about, of justifying our research, we are really being dishonest. Scientists should ask themselves why they are doing their research. I mean really ask themeselves and not issue the usual platitudes aimed at pleasing our paymasters. I for one am happy to declare that the reason I do research is because I like it. I enjoy the challenge of solving a problem that no-one else has achieved, much like doing a crossword puzzle perhaps. I suggest that this is one of the main reasons that most scientists do their research (otherwise how can one account for myriad of fine-detailed rather obscure published work). Another motive, but not mine I hasten to add, is personal ego: the need to be recognised, invited to conferences, committees, and so on. If our work happens to produce something actually and directly useful, all the better, but I do not really think that is what is primarily in our minds for must of us. So, the recent suggestion (and I note that EPSRC is already implementing this) of writing an impact summary, something that we basic research scientists are ill-equipped to do, is once again pushing us towards ever more dishonesty. I recall many years ago when the CEO of EPSRC came to Oxford to explain the then new policies of the recently- formed EPSRC out of the ashes of SERC, Professor Nicholas Kurti saying to him: don’t you realise that you are forcing us to become dishonest?

    So, in short, perhaps it is time that the real and honest reasons for doing basic research should be admitted, get rid of all this beneficiaries nonsense, which we all treat as a kind of cipher, together with the beloved workplans etc. This is not what politicians want to hear and it does make it difficult to persuade the public that science is worth funding, but at least it would be genuine. It is high time that scientific research is recognised as being very inefficient as a way of increasing national wealth, but when a major discovery, normally totally unpredicted, does occur,as it does from time to time, the benefits can be enormous, and in my view well worth the cost. It is the unpredictability of research that is important, and this is why all the top-down planning in the world is unlikely to produce real benefits, especially when it results in scientists who wish to follow their instincts are unable to do so.

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  23. Rich Says:

    I’m wondering what this two-page document would have looked like if it had been written for the Large Hadron Collider experiment. I can’t find its equivalent on the CERN site but there is an interesting discussion here

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  25. A Nobel effort? « Testing hypotheses… Says:

    [...] is also some interesting commentary on this on the Prometheus science policy [...]

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  27. PaddikJ Says:

    Riding my hobby horse just a little longer, I note that Glazer’s comments at least somewhat reinforce the view expressed in the third paragraph of my initial entry here.

    When he states that “I for one am happy to declare that the reason I do research is because I like it. I enjoy the challenge of solving a problem that no-one else has achieved”, I, at least, say “Go for it!” (but would implore that he please, watch his writing: how does one “achieve a problem?”). Whether or not the particular problem he or anyone else happens to be working on ever yields any practical benefits is irrelevant; the academic culture of free inquiry has yielded payoffs far in excess of the relative pittance we have invested in it. Scientists should not have to make the slightest apology.

    In a 30-year period from 1900 to about 1930, a bunch of very bright physicists, almost by pure thought alone, layed the foundations of Quantum Mechanics, the practical spin-offs of which have utterly changed the world. Assuming modern technological civilisation doesn’t commit suicide by frittering away its wealth on environmental phantasms, everything else in the 20th century will probably fade to insignicance compared to this discovery. Where would we be today if the paymasters of Planck, Sommerfeld, Heisenburg, et al, had demanded an EOB of their work as a prerequisite to employment?

    OK; I’ll get off now.

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  29. PaddikJ Says:

    In posting my last entry, I noticed that Ryan never answered my initial question about the British vs. American meaning of Blue Skies – how wude!

    So Ryan, is “Blue Skies” roughly equivalent to “pure research”?

    Following this line of discussion a little further, this thread seems heavily British, which makes me curious about the differences between the British and American methods research funding. As is no doubt obvious, I am not knowlegeable about research funding; I’m just an interested citizen with some strong opinions about the value of science and research (all research, I might add – I am not fixated on pure research, I just want its value to be recognized).

    However, Roger is an authority on science policy, and presumably, science funding.

    Roger, if you’ve been lurking here, could you add some of your insight? Not only the about differences of funding methods, but cultural differences in how Blue Skies research is valued.


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  31. Ryan Meyer Says:

    For me, the term “pure research” has some pretty negative connotations, in that the alternative is somehow “impure.” I think there are a variety of highly overlapping terms – blue skies, pure, basic, curiosity driven – which generally imply research undertaken without a specific practical problem in mind, and without some kind of top down control or management. The terms evoke images of an independent scientist pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge, without regard to how this may or may not benefit anyone else.

    At the level of research agendas, or portfolios, of course science must be managed to some extent. Organizations funding basic research traditionally look to the scientific community for guidance on the most important areas of funding, so that the process remains “bottom up.” Of course, even at the NSF, which prides itself on being the nation’s “basic science” agency pursuing “bottom up” science, it is not so simple. Politics (in government and in science) have an important influence on NSF research portfolios.

    Unfortunately I cannot speak to UK-US differences, as I know very little about UK funding for science. Maybe Roger or others can elaborate.


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  33. Philip Moriarty Says:

    It’s worth noting that Comment #13 above links to the blog of Steven Hill, Head of Research Councils UK (RCUK)’s Strategy Unit. He seems to imply in his post that it is only “a small number of senior researchers” who are concerned about the imposition of economic impact criteria.

    It’s worth noting that RCUK carried out a “consultation” with all UK universities in mid-2007 on a number of issues related to peer review, including the appraisal of economic impact. As discussed here , Dr. Hill appears to have forgotten the strength of the negative feedback RCUK received from UK universities in 2007 on the matter of attempting to judge economic impact.


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  35. David Colquhoun Says:

    I too was a signatory of the letter in Times Higher Education.

    I fear that Ryan Meyer’s comments bear all the hallmarks of a policy wonk rather than those of an active research worker. He says

    “Is it all that scandalous to suggest that scientists should have some understanding of the social contexts of the problems they are studying,”

    No, of course there is nothing scandalous about it, The question is whether or not it’s possible. I work on single ion channels, both experimentally and on the underlying stochastic theory. The results, I hope, tell one something about how the proteins that underlie synaptic transmission work. The maximum likelihood fitting of experimental results depends on some quite fancy mathematics done by colleagues with whom I collaborate. In a modest way it is a continuation at a more molecular level of the work at UCL by Bernard Katz (Nobel prize 1970) that elucidated the nature of synaptic transmission, and the subsequent work of Sakmann & Neher (Nobel prize 1991) on single channel recording.

    I would like Ryan Meyer to explain to me what the “social context” of work like this might be. Or does he think that there is no place now for this sort of investigation?

    One might equally well ask what the early workers on lasers were meant to say about the “social context” of their work. Perhaps you could explain that to me too?

    Sometimes I think that we’d we’d all be better off with Science Policy Research units and just left to get on with the job of science.

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  37. How to get good science: again Says:

    [...] Prometheus blog from the USA has an article by Ryan Meyer that has given rise to some comments and questions. I have asked him to explain to me what he means [...]

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  39. David Colquhoun Says:

    Perhaps I should add that that there are some areas of research where I agree that it is quite essential to consider the social context. That would be true if one were working in climate change, or nuclear fission, or some sorts of surveillance.

    Take, for example, work that is designed to use CCTV cameras to recognize “suspicious behaviour” In a case like that, the path that would have the greatest short-term benefit to the economy would be to exaggerate what such systems can achieve (good for your citations too) and work with the manufacturers to get such systems installed everywhere. But a scientist with a conscience might well consider the social context and conclude that this was too Orwellian by far. They’d conclude that the social context compelled them to oppose the course with the greatest economic benefit. How would that look on an application form for a grant?

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  41. David Bruggeman Says:

    Unlike Ryan, I am a policy wonk. An answer to your question about social context (not my preferred phrase, I favor the ‘broader impact’ language of the U.S. National Science Foundation) and single ion channel work comes down to your thoughts about the results:

    “The results, I hope, tell one something about how the proteins that underlie synaptic transmission work.”

    So the broader impacts of your work could assist in addressing diseases or other medical phenomena involved with synaptic transmission. There may be pharmaceutical or other medical treatments that could result from a particular outcome of your work. Those treatments have impacts that economists could make some estimate as to their value. Those treatments would also have other benefits not easily monetized, or connected to other desired public goals.

    Now, this is what *I* think of when considering social context or broader impacts of scientific work. I do not know how well this matches with what the Research Councils or parts of Whitehall have in mind.

    Note that I have not addressed other potential outcomes of single ion channel research. Those that aren’t foreseen (or even foreseeable) aren’t likely to be in a grant application in any detail. If Whitehall is seeking this, then they are going to be disappointed.

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  43. David Colquhoun Says:

    David Bruggeman
    Thanks for your suggestion

    “could assist in addressing diseases or other medical phenomena involved with synaptic transmission. There may be pharmaceutical or other medical treatments that could result from a particular outcome of your work. Those treatments have impacts that economists could make some estimate as to their value. Those treatments would also have other benefits not easily monetized, or connected to other desired public goals.”

    Of course that is just the sort of vague arm-waving waffle that one writes when forced to do so. It really isn’t worth much, is it? There is something almost corrupting about being forced to write vacuous prose of that sort.

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  45. Ryan Meyer Says:

    Dr. Colquhoun:

    As David pointed out, we are now talking about the social context of research, rather than social impacts, and of course, there’s a difference. That said, even with a cursory glance at your website, it was fairly easy for me to make a few observations about both of these things with regard to your research. I am sure that with greater familiarity and a little more thought, far more could be said.

    To begin with, your website says:

    “We have taken this approach to analysis of natural disease-causing mutations in human muscle nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, and in human glycine receptors (the latter being in collaboration with Sivilotti’s lab).”

    So, you are studying an aspect of human physiology with relevance to certain kinds of health problems caused by random mutations. Even if your pursuit of this research is motivated entirely by your own curiosity about a biological function, it has implications for human health. What is more, I would be very surprised if you had not highlighted this fact in grant proposals you have written in the past. But even if I’m wrong about that, I would be even more surprised if the programs funding your work had not done so with at least some notion of how it relates to the potential for understanding, preventing, or treating certain health problems.

    So that begins to address some of the broader potential social context of your work, but there is another dimension as well. This has to do with the choices and connections you make in conducting your research. I imagine that the system you are studying is found in other animals – why did you choose humans, and why do you highlight this choice on your website? Regardless of the reasons for these choices, they speak to the ways in which your research shapes the advance of knowledge, and the possibilities related to that advance. The fact that your lab is open to making connections with other groups that can help you with your work (applied math), and that might be able to apply your work more directly to health issues such as tobacco addiction and other neurological problems (Sivilotti’s lab
    ), has consequences for the social impacts and social contexts of your work.

    It’s hard for me to go much further than this, given my limited knowledge of your field. But I think it’s pretty clear that, as much as you may see it as “basic science,” your work generates applied problems in a variety of ways, and has relevance to broader social issues in the area of health. I think it is appropriate for science policy makers to recognize things like this, so that they can incentivize researchers to pursue these sorts of collaborations, and to take time for considering the ways in which their research can be beneficial as they make choices about the most important/interesting problems.

    I know a number of scientists who wish that they could do this – work on collaborations with other groups, and take time to explore the implications of their work – but this is not the world they are working in. These sorts of activities are neither rewarded nor funded. Wouldn’t you agree that some changes along these lines would be a good thing?

    I should point out that I am not trying to defend the UK Councils particular approach, as I don’t know any more than what has been said on this blog and in the articles to which I linked above. I am offering a more general argument that we should explore ways in which science policy can encourage more direct and fruitful connections between research and the problems it may help to solve.

    Obviously we do not want a system in which researchers “make stuff up,” so that they can get on with their work. And we want to avoid stifling entire fields. But we can make progress in this area while avoiding either of those outcomes.

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  47. David Colquhoun Says:

    Obviously we used the human receptor because it was in humans that the particular disease-causing mutant occurred. It’s a useful consequence of DNA technology that we can now use human receptors for some jobs (though that isn’t much good if you want to compare results with synaptic transmission which can’t be observed in humans). Of course we’d be delighted if, at some time in the future, our results were useful in treating disease. Historically, that has often happened, but it happens unpredictably and often far later.

    We have been using single ion channel measurements to try to dissect the intramolecular changes that are responsible for transmitting the signal from ligand binding site to the channel gate. That is a long way from human disease. Sivilotti’s lab has separately carried on with earlier work on neuronal nicotinic receptors, on such problems as the subunit composition of native receptors. Such receptors are generally supposed to be involved in nicotine addiction, but at the moment nothing useful can be said about the relationship of their work to any particular human problem. Of course, if you mention smoking in a press release you get the press of the world on the phone, but to pretend that you could say anything useful about smoking on the basis of such results would really be no more than dishonest hype.

    You say

    “I know a number of scientists who wish that they could do this – work on collaborations with other groups, and take time to explore the implications of their work – but this is not the world they are working in. These sorts of activities are neither rewarded nor funded. Wouldn’t you agree that some changes along these lines would be a good thing?”

    If I had a good idea for how our work might be used to prevent or treat some disease, I doubt whether it would be hard to get funding to test it or to find collaborators to work on it, In practice what you are advocating means targeting money to particular problems. Research Councils in the UK have become rather fond of doing just that. In my experience the outcome, only too often, is that money is wasted on second rate projects that the committee would like to see solved but which can’t be because of lack of fundamental knowledge. You could get to the moon, because the fundamental knowledge about how to do it existed. Initiatives to cure cancer in ten years, or to find out how memory works in a decade, failed because the fundamental knowledge about where to start didn’t exist.

    There is nothing new about interdisciplinary work. I’ve been collaborating with mathematicians (mainly) throughout my life. It’s just part of the job, and it doesn’t need to be encouraged by policy-makers: any competent researcher will do it. But I suspect that you mean that I should be collaborating with clinicians or drug companies, not with mathematicians. I have no particular objection, at least to the former, if it would be fruitful, but for the sort of work we are doing, it would not be useful to either us or to the clinician.

    You say “we should explore ways in which science policy can encourage more direct and fruitful connections between research and the problems it may help to solve”. That’s fine, but it neglects the problem that most basic research is not immediately applicable. So in practice, what you are saying actually amounts to saying we should divert money from basic research to research that has an immediate application. In the UK at least, the buzzword is translational research. Nobody seems to be thinking about what happens when you run out of ideas to translate.

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  49. Svetlana Pertsovich Says:

    Why were my comments deleted?

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  51. Ryan Meyer Says:

    I deleted your comments because they were highly sarcastic, unproductive, and rude.

    If you feel they need to be out there, post the somewhere else.

    Alternatively, you could participate in the discussion without insulting me or anyone else.

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  53. Svetlana Pertsovich Says:

    Sorry, but your comments about Professor Colquhoun were not better than my ones – they were inadequate. I am sorry.
    My answer was quite symmetrical.

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  55. Svetlana Pertsovich Says:

    So, I hope you will rebuild both my comments (you can censor them there where they touch you personally,if you want).

    Or else your behaviour will look as strangulation of freedom of speech ;)

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  57. Ryan Meyer Says:

    Dr. Colquhoun:
    “So in practice, what you are saying actually amounts to saying we should divert money from basic research to research that has an immediate application.”

    I am not saying that. I tried to point out ways in which research, even if it does not have an obvious or predictable impact, still has a social context that is worth consideration by scientists and science policy makers.

    “In the UK at least, the buzzword is translational research. Nobody seems to be thinking about what happens when you run out of ideas to translate.”

    This statement assumes that basic, pure, or curiosity-driven research is the sole source of new ideas. As I have tried to point out, this is not the case.

    Thanks for participating in this discussion!

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  59. Svetlana Pertsovich Says:

    “If we take this at face value as an effort by the government to build stronger connections between science and the problems it is trying to solve, then resistance to such ideas starts to look pretty arrogant.”

    Arrogant? I think – quite the reverse – too tolerant and peaceful, if we more attentively consider “social context” of most actions of our politicians. In the light of this the letter in THE is realy too modest revolt.

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  61. Philip Moriarty Says:


    I’ve been following the discussion between you and David (Colquhoun) with great interest both here at at DC’s Improbable Science . I don’t want to revisit the points that David has raised re. basic vs directed/translational research (as you might guess, I am fully behind David on this). I’d instead like to ask both you and David Bruggeman (who describes himself as a “policy wonk” above) the following two questions:

    1. Why should the taxpayer fund scientific research in universities?

    2. What is the fundamental economic rationale for state support of university research?

    As an academic scientist, I have considered the two questions above at length. What I’m really interested to discover is the extent to which my answers correlate with the responses of those involved with (or having an interest in) science policy development.

    Best wishes,


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  63. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Hi All-

    A very interesting discussion. At the risk of jumping in late, let me point to a paper Rad Byerly and I did on this subject:

    Pielke, Jr., R.A., and R. Byerly, Jr., 1998: Beyond Basic and Applied. Physics Today, 51(2), 42-46.

    I agree strongly with David C. about the practical challenges of having researchers wax polemic on the benefits of their research, so I am empathetic with the suggested boycott. I see the US NSF criterion 2 as a bit of a waste of time. At the same time, I agree with Ryan about the need for science to be placed into broader social context, if nothing else to facilitate the process of political priority setting (and funding for science).

    So if the “impact summary” is a no go, what then instead?

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  65. Svetlana Pertsovich Says:

    You have said rightly about contradiction between short-term government/economical “diktats” and principle mechanism of Science.
    However, the question arises.
    Is modern policy/economics capable to suit modern Science? We see that there is contradiction between them. However – is this contradiction surmountable?

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  67. Ryan Meyer Says:

    Dear Philip,

    There is a considerable literature that addresses your questions, so I will summarize some main points here, while providing some additional resources.

    There are many reasons to use public money for research in universities. Probably the most famous case is that made by Vannevar Bush after WWII:

    Bush, V. 1945. Science, the Endless Frontier. A Report to the President.

    This report argued that the kinds of major breakthroughs that helped to win the war could continue to benefit the country during times of peace. In addition to making a case for support of science, this report was very specific about the best ways in which to support science. These conform to the “linear model” of science, which remains a powerful idea to this day, despite being a very poor description of the way in which innovation actually proceeds. Also, the report incorrectly assumes all results of science and technology to be beneficial.

    The most well-known *economic* argument for research funding is the “market failure” argument, of which this paper by Dick Nelson is an early and much-cited example:

    Nelson, R. R. 1959. The Simple Economics of Basic Scientific Research. The Journal of Political Economy 67:297-306.

    This is a simple idea – private companies will not fund adequate basic research because it is difficult to exclude others from the results (not to mention the fact that it might be very difficult to apply them), and so the public sector has a role to play in correcting a market failure and providing a public good.

    This is fine, but it does not address the problem of scientific *choice*, i.e. how to allocate resources once have decided to spend them. There is quite a debate about this problem. Two early papers provide an interesting dialog:

    Polanyi, M. 1962. The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory. Minerva 38:1.
    Toulmin, S. 1964. The complexity of scientific choice: A stocktaking. Minerva 2:343.

    Many in the discussion above have been echoing the Polanyi position, but this paper has some serious flaws in the way it represents the conduct of science.

    Partha Dasgupta and Paul David, recognizing the limited and incomplete nature of arguments like those of Polanyi and Nelson, have continued the task of exploring the problem of scientific choice from an economic perspective, while drawing considerably on the sociology of science. This yields a more nuanced set of points that I will not try to summarize here, other than to say that they come away very skeptical of attempts to measure the economic impacts of basic research, but very much in favor of looking further into ways of managing research toward beneficial outcomes.

    But even this work has some important limitations, because it takes a very narrow view of the role of science in our society – namely that it is good for economic growth, military security, and not much else. I referenced this problem in Comment #10. In general I feel that the government’s role is broader than simply ensuring optimum economic growth (e.g. equal opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and happiness), and a review of the various US science agencies, and their missions, confirms this. We fund science to make better decisions about climate change, to manage land more effectively, to improve public health, increase resilience of coastlines, manage information more efficiently, understand sources or causes of inequity… the list goes on and on. We also fund science because of curiosity (e.g. space exploration). Economic growth/efficiency is not an appropriate surrogate for many of these things. For more on this, I recommend the following paper:

    Bozeman, B. and D. Sarewitz. 2005. Public values and public failure in US science policy. Science & Public Policy (SPP) 32:119.
    There is much more to say, but I guess I will conclude by noting that we may fund research for any number of reasons; the challenge for science policy is to figure out ways to bring research in line with the motivations underpinning public funding for that research.

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  69. Ryan Meyer Says:

    forgot the dasgupta/david reference:

    Dasgupta, P. and P. A. David. 1994. Toward a new economics of science. Research Policy 23:487-521.

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  71. Philip Moriarty Says:


    I am fully aware that there’s a “considerable literature” that in principle might be seen to address my questions. I’m rather disappointed/suprised, however, not to see John Ziman’s name appear on your list. There’s also a more recent, and excellent, paper by Nelson which I would have included: RR Nelson, Research Policy 33 455 (2004).

    My motivation in asking the question, however, was not to revisit literature with which I’m very familiar – although thank you for taking the time to list the references. Rather, it was to get your particular “take” on that literature. The second half of your post – in particular, the final two paragraphs – is therefore very helpful. I’ll take some time to digest it and get back to you asap.

    No more blogging for me tonight – I’ve got an undergraduate lecture on self-assembly to prepare for tomorrow!

    Best wishes,


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  73. David Bruggeman Says:

    Dr. Colquhon:

    In response to my suggestion you wrote,

    “Of course that is just the sort of vague arm-waving waffle that one writes when forced to do so. It really isn’t worth much, is it? There is something almost corrupting about being forced to write vacuous prose of that sort.”

    Before I answer the question of worth, I was wondering if you think this ‘arm-waving waffle’ is the same kind of thing expected with the new requirements, or if something different is expected.

    The question of worth is tricky, at least to me. You may find the vacuous prose lacking in value. But at least attempting to answer the question can provide insight to funders about what they might value in your research. That what they value and what you value are different can be frustrating, but I’m not sure it’s fatal (nor corrupting).

    I agree with Roger that the U.S. broader impact/criteria 2 measure is a bit of a waste of time. Why I think so has to do with the lack of seriousness given it by the National Science Foundation or grant applicants, as well as the lack of follow-through on broader impacts. In other words, what is done after the research to take the outputs and connect them with desired outcomes? Very little is said about that, and without such a process, the most likely outcome of these requirements is simply to add to the grant application process. Personally, I see this as more of an annoyance than anything worth boycotting.

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  75. David Bruggeman Says:


    To the questions you posed, I offer the following answers:

    1. Why should the taxpayer fund scientific research in universities?

    Taxpayer support for university-based scientific research is justified to help support the educational mission of the university. By supporting faculty research taxpayer funds can also provide research opportunities for students who can apply that knowledge and experience in whatever post-school path they pursue. Strong support of university research should attract quality faculty who can in turn attract quality students, many of who will stick around the region of the university. Support of faculty teaching and the associated benefits to students may or may not be separable from taxpayer support of university based scientific research.

    Taxpayer support for scientific research in universities is also a good idea for the spillover effects on the surrounding community. By supporting the faculty and staff positions associated with the research, there is a job base and economic input that will support other jobs. Companies created to commercialize university research benefit from this taxpayer support through the provision of a knowledge base and trained researchers. University-industry partnerships (formal and informal, contracts, extension services, etc.) help spread the knowledge created through scientific research and that knowledge can provide other community benefits as well.

    2. What is the fundamental economic rationale for state support of university research?

    Aside from what I described in the last paragraph of my previous response, there are a few places where there lacks sufficient incentive for private entities to conduct research in areas where they could ultimately benefit. Maybe it’s difficult for a private entity to prevent other entities from benefiting from that research. Maybe the private entity can’t bear the necessary expense (due to a longer term payoff than they can afford, or the simple scale of the project is beyond their capacity). Research consortia sometimes arise to assist in these endeavors, but often an outside party, like a government or university, can help bring people together.

    Whether or not my answers match with Philip’s (or Ryan’s), I’m not sure it’s a bad thing if they don’t. It could certainly explain some of the resistance and frustration over the U.K. proposal, or the lack of interest in the U.S. broader impact criteria. That researchers and their patrons have different objectives in mind can’t be unique to the present.

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  77. Ryan Meyer Says:

    I look forward to your further comments. And thanks for pointing out the Nelson (2004) paper. Earlier in this discussion I said the following:

    The most unfortunate aspect of debates such as this one is that there appear to be only two sides – “science for science’s sake,” and “science for economic benefit.” This perception leads each side to dig in, as scientists feel their only recourse is to argue for the (in reality false) linear model of innovation, in which the benefits are automatic, but unpredictable.

    This is a main point of Nelson’s paper as well (p. 456):

    The case for open scientific knowledge clearly needs to be reconstructed recognizing explicitly that much of scientific research in fact is oriented towards providing knowledge useful for the solution of practical problems, that the applications of new scientific findings often are broadly predictable, and that this
    is why control over scientific findings in some cases is financially valuable property. I think there is a case for keeping basic scientific knowledge open, even under these conditions. To privatize basic knowledge is a danger both for the advance of science, and for the advance of technology.

    Nelson is making the argument that we need to preserve “open science,” but that we need to think about it differently. The old way of thinking is inaccurate, and it is no longer serving as an effective argument against privatization.

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  79. Philip Moriarty Says:


    You state:

    Personally, I see this as more of an annoyance than anything worth boycotting.

    It’s extremely important to realise that the economic impact summary plan Research Councils UK (RCUK) is imposing is very much more than just “an annoyance” . It represents nothing less than a sea change in the ethos of academic research funding in the UK.

    Before imposing economic impact criteria on the peer review process, RCUK carried out a “consultation” with all UK universities. The feedback was extremely negative – see this post for a brief discussion and synopsis. RCUK nevertheless ignored the collective opinion of the vast majority of UK universities and introduced its “impact plan” nonsense into peer review.

    This is much, much more than a skirmish over increased bureaucracy.


    P.S. Thanks to you and Ryan for the detailed feedback on my questions. I’ll respond as soon as I can. I thought it important, however, to address your “annoyance” comment asap!

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  81. Svetlana Pertsovich Says:

    Personally, I see this as more of an annoyance than anything worth boycotting.

    It is elementary to distinguish the things such as “an annoyance” and “boycotting”. If scientists grumble a bit and at last agree to write these two pages, it will be “an annoyance”. And if they refuse to write these two pages and make bureaucrats to abolish these requirements, it will be “boycotting”.

    “Nelson is making the argument that we need to preserve “open science,” but that we need to think about it differently. The old way of thinking is inaccurate, and it is no longer serving as an effective argument against privatization.”

    Uh-uh! This is a speech of people, who plunged the world into crisis already with their tricks such as “privatization”, but they don’t want still to stop. Sirs, have a compassion though on your own children. Just they will live in the world, which you crush with your ill-considered activity.

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  83. David Bruggeman Says:


    It would help me to better understand your concerns if I could see what exactly would be required with this economic impact plan. The requirements for responding to the closest thing the U.S. has – the broader impact criteria – involve adding additional discussion to the grant application. It’s more work, but (and I have participated in grant applications with this criteria) not ethos-shifting. Now it’s possible my ethos was pre-shifted, but without seeing precisely what UK researchers would need to do, I can’t be sure.

    Reviewing the discussion you pointed to, it seems that the differences between the UK and US responses may be small. I am curious as to why what I see as a speculative exercise you consider dishonest. Or were you commenting more on the inherent compromise of applying for outside funding – bending to the whims of the funding organization?

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  85. Philip Moriarty Says:


    Briefly for now (as I plan to get back to you shortly on your and Ryan’s other comprehensive responses to my questions above), the key thing with regard to the discussion I pointed to is this:

    RCUK consulted with the UK academic community re. the appropriateness of introducing economic impact measures into the peer review process. Practically every UK university pointed out that this was an ill-conceived and ill-informed strategy to adopt. RCUK ignored that feedback and introduced the economic impact criteria in any case. Perhaps they did this with academe’s best interests at heart. Nonetheless, the result is that RCUK, which should represent the interests of the academic community and remain “at arms’ length” from government, ignored expert feedback and chose to implement policies that were clearly designed to align with strategies outlined in a number of Government/Treasury reviews and reports. This rankles for a number of reason but at least in part because the New Labour government similarly has a history of requesting advice/feedback, going to great pains to argue that they are “consulting” with the “community”, and then promptly ignoring that advice.

    The research councils in the UK are not another government department – this is a crucial point – and they should act in the best long-term interests of publicly-funded academe/science. In setting up the Medical Research Council in the early 20th century, Haldane recognised the key difficulties with having science policy directly controlled by government: he foresaw (predicted) the narrow, short-term bias that would necessarily result. Thus, you’ll see the Haldane Principle referred to in countless discussion of science policy in the UK. (As you may already know?). RCUK will argue that well, it does not get take orders directly from the government so the Haldane principle is preserved. This entirely dodges the issue (and rather patronises UK academics) because, in aligning their funding strategy with flawed, ill-informed, and damaging government policy, they implictly violate the Haldane principle.

    So, yes, I see the arrogant rejection of feedback/advice from the majority of UK universities (and an international review panel and the Royal Society ) on the imposition of economic impact criteria in peer review as inherently dishonest.

    Second point: You ask why the impact plan RCUK is introducing is “ethos shifting”? Up to this point the research council argument has always been that grants will be awarded on the basis of scientific quality. Introducing judgements based on economic impact – when not one of the reviewers will be fully qualified to make this judgement (unless, like the UK’s Science Minister, they have a well-developed sixth sense ) – will clearly disadvantage research that doesn’t have identifiable impact. Philip Esler, Professor of Biblical Criticism at St. Andrews and RCUK’s economic impact champion, makes the following argument:

    Excellent research without obvious or immediate impact will continue to be funded by the Research Councils and will not be disadvantaged within the assessment process.

    As my colleague at Nottingham, Prof. Mike Merrifield, points out this is a nonsensical statement.

    Finally, there are very many important reasons why RCUK’s approach to attempting to impose short-term economic impact criteria is economically flawed. Some of these are touched upon in Jennifer Washburn’s “University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education” and in Daniel S. Greenberg’s “Science for Sale” . Nelson, Pavitt, Narin et al, Fabrizio et al. have made similar important observations along these lines. More on this later, I’ve really got to get on with the day job!

    Best wishes,


    P.S. OK, so maybe this comment wasn’t so brief…

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  87. Philip Moriarty Says:

    Apologies for the misplaced apostrophe and the other typos in the preceding post. That should be “at arm’s” rather than “at arms’” length.


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  89. Philip Moriarty Says:

    David, Ryan,

    First, thanks again for taking the time to provide considered responses to my questions in Comment #31 above. I address your comments below but, before I do, I’ll provide some background both on my research interests and on the funding situation in the UK.

    I am a physicist working in the area of nanoscience at the University of Nottingham. I receive the bulk of my funding from two sources: the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), one of the seven research councils that comprise Research Councils UK (RCUK), and the European Framework Programmes (the Marie Curie Research Training Networks programme in particular). My research focusses on the basic physics and chemistry of matter at the nanometre level. It is blues skies/basic research in the sense that I have no desire to apply this work to the development of a device/sensor nor to commercialise our findings.

    I see no conflict between this stance and my “social contract” as a publicly-funded researcher. Perhaps you disagree. RCUK certainly sees my lack of entrepreneurial spirit as effectively a wasted resource. Indeed, from a closer-to-home perspective, the University of Nottingham has stated that it plans to embed an entrepreneurial culture across the entire university (and is immensely proud of winning a recent award for Entrepreneurial University of the Year). So let me state, for the record: I am a scientist. Not an engineer. Not a technologist. Not an entrepreneur.

    I have been increasingly concerned by the steps RCUK and, in particular, EPSRC has taken to align its funding programmes with the recommendations of a number of influential government reports produced in the past five years or so. These reports have each focussed on how to extract more “economic impact” from the research that the research councils fund. A useful synopsis/overview of RCUK’s strategies can be found in a report entitled Increasing the Economic Impact of the Research Councils , released in mid-2006.

    Note the focus on knowledge transfer throughout the report, a subject to which I’ll return below. Moreover, the report recommends, on p. 18, compulsory business/enterprise training for all PhD students . It is also worth noting that the new Science Minister, Paul Drayson, does not have a background in science but is lauded for his talents as a businessman and entrepreneur.

    As I’ve discussed in Comment #42 above, RCUK carried out what they termed a consultation with all UK universities in mid-2007 on the subject of modifying the peer review process. A key element of this consultation was the proposal to introduce economic impact criteria in peer review. Criticism of this proposal from UK universities was, in many cases, stinging. However, as RCUK had committed itself to implementing government policy on economic impact it chose to ignore the feedback from the academic community.

    Why am I so opposed to the introduction of economic impact criteria in peer review and to RCUK’s “industry-facing” agenda? The answers lie with my (and your) responses to the questions I posed in Comment #31 above. For me, the key issues are:

    1. Ryan, you argue that identifying basic scientific research as a public good does not address the problem of how to allocate resources. Let’s leave the question of resource allocation to one side for a moment and focus on the issue of science as a public good. This, as you are aware, is the core economic rationale for state funding of science.

    What I am opposed to is the use of public funds to support near-market R&D at the expense of far-from-market basic science. Near-market R&D does not suffer from the same market failure as basic research. Why then should the taxpayer subsidise the research programmes of, to name but a few, Procter & Gamble, Glaxo SmithKline, BAE Systems, and Phillips to develop, for example, “scale up” of their products? See, for example, this call document which focuses on the study of nanofluids (an area of research which our group at Nottingham is heavily into), and I quote, “design systems that provide a noticeable boost in product performance and/or acceptance to the consumer”. . (Each one of the companies I’ve listed is involved or has been involved in a strategic partnership with one of the research councils).

    Ryan, David: Do you think that this is an appropriate use of public funds? If so, could you explain why? Perhaps I’m missing some fundamental economic point. (It’s perhaps also worth noting that many of these companies have rather interesting approaches to paying tax in the first place .)

    2. The ethos of academia should involve open and free dissemination of research results. This ethos is being eroded by the ever-increasing focus of universities (and their associated technology transfer offices) on IPR and IP protection. What is remarkable is that RCUK seems entirely committed to repeating the mistakes of the US in this area. A considerable number of technology transfer offices do not make a profit in the US and, indeed, a significant number make heavy losses.

    3. There’s an excellent recent (Sept. 2008) paper/strategy document by Geoffrey Boulton and Colin Lucas entitled “What are universities for?” which I think you’ll find fascinating. At the risk of making an already verbose and overlong comment even longer, I’m going to quote verbatim two particularly important paragraphs:

    Universities can and do contribute to the innovation process, but not as its drivers. Innovation is dominantly a process of business engagement with markets, in which universities can only play a minor active role. They do however contribute to the fertility of the environment that innovation needs if it is to flourish. University commercialisation activities themselves, the creation of spin-out and start-up companies and licensing of intellectual property, do not, even in the USA, where university commercialisation is best developed, directly contribute significantly to GNP.

    Why RCUK and, indeed, the Treasury and the Department of Innovation, Universities, and Skills, cannot grasp this distinction between “university push” and market/industry “pull”, I really don’t know.

    The second important point (among very many) that Boulton and Lucas make is the following:

    The ideas, thoughts and technologies that tomorrow will need or that will forge tomorrow, are hid from us, and foresight exercises have had a lamentable record of success in attempting to predict them. Just as the breathtaking pace of scientific, technological and societal innovation has changed and is changing the way we live, in an unpredictable way, so will it in the future.

    The universities in their creative, freethinking mode are a vital resource for
    that future and an insurance against it. The policies being increasingly pressed upon them implicitly assume a knowable future or a static societal or economic frame. As Drew Faust has said, in her inaugural address as President of Harvard: “A university is not about results in the next quarter; it is not even about who a student has become by graduation. It is about learning that moulds a lifetime; learning that transmits the heritage of millennia; learning that shapes the future”.

    Isn’t that quote from Faust beautiful? Let’s translate it for RCUK: The key contribution of a university to the “innovation ecosystem” is “human capital”. As a publicly-funded scientist, a key component of my social contract is to educate (not simply train) students in the scientific method, to the best of my ability. Those students then provide an extremely important mechanism of knowledge transfer between industry and academia. Moreover, how do you go about quantifying the total economic impact of that “human capital”?

    4. A very important mechanism of knowledge transfer between universities and industry, which RCUK seem committed to ignoring, is publication in the open literature. As Jennfier Washburn stated back in 2003 with regard to the situation in the US:

    In a survey published in 2002 by Wesley Cohen and Richard Nelson, industry technology professionals were asked what are the most important mechanisms by which you get information from academia? To an overwhelming extent, industry said that open channels like publication and consulting were the most important channels. Patenting and licensing ranked way at the bottom across nearly all industries, except pharmaceuticals.

    Our duty as publicly-funded researchers is to disseminate , not protect, knowledge stemming from our work. For me, the term “intellectual property” should be an oxymoron in the context of academic research.

    5. And finally, there is increasing evidence from the US that the patenting/IP protection culture that UK universities are so desperate to inculcate, not only slows down knowledge transfer to industry (what a surprise!) but it actively dissuades companies from interacting with universities (see Physics Today, May 2008).

    That’s more than enough for now. I realise that I haven’t addressed all of your comments but I hope that I’ve clarified my position to some extent!

    Best wishes and thanks once again for engaging with me on this topic,


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  91. Svetlana Pertsovich Says:

    Probably, it is necessary to know politician’s final aim before spending of time and energies for persuasion of them. What is politician’s main duty today? Politicians distribute funding, money. And they want to distribute money by such way, which give them maximum and speedy profit. So final aim of politicians is the funding of only those scientists who can give them such maximum and speedy profit. If you can’t show politicians that you are capable to give them wishful profit, they will not fund you.
    Doubtfully that they are capable to accept your (absolutely right and clever!) explanation. Unfortunately, modern organization of policy and economics is non-reasonable.
    And main conclusion – they will never give you money.

    Am I right, sirs? (I’m addressing to our dear specialists in field of policy of science).

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  93. Philip Moriarty Says:

    Dear Ryan and David,

    Further to the lengthy discussion above, I’ve recently been a member of an NSF peer review panel (for the first time). This has helped me better interpret your comments on Criterion 2. It was very clear during the panel meeting and in reviewing grant proposals that NSF and, equally importantly, the US academic community interpret “broader impact” in terms of societal impact. There is a strong distinction between short term economic impact and broader societal impact (outreach, interaction with high school teachers and students, underrepresented minorities etc…). This distinction has been wilfully blurred in the UK by the influential Warry report: the research councils, working from the Warry definition, consider the term “economic impact” as encompassing broader societal impact.

    It was very refreshing to read all of the NSF grant proposals and not come across the terms “intellectual property”, “technology transfer”, “spin-off”, “commercialisation”, or “patent” at any point. This is certainly not the case in the UK where the research councils and, of course, university research offices are very much focussed on IP/patent/spin-off opportunities. If this focus were restricted to grant proposals involving near-market R&D (a la the NSF’s SBIR or STTR programmes) then this, arguably, would be reasonable. (One could, however, quibble about whether the research councils, as opposed to another government department, should be supporting near market research in the first place. Let’s put that point aside for now.). The UK research councils are, however, imposing the economic impact summary on *all* proposals, whether basic, applied, short-term, or long-term.

    So, I think we actually agree on many points. Should academics be concerned with the broader societal impact of their work? Yes, of course. Should they aim to involve, for example, elementary and high school students/teachers and the general public in their work (where possible and appropriate)? Certainly. But this is very different from attempting to predict the overall economic impact of a basic research proposal. It is also very different from pushing academics towards short term “economy-focussed” research where the goal in many cases is that the university scientist effectively becomes a contract researcher for industry.

    The bottom line is that there is a world of difference between NSF’s Criterion 2 and the impact plan UK research councils are imposing on academics.

    Best wishes,