Rethinking UK Research Funding: Report, Part I

Yesterday I attend the Rethinking UK Research Funding conference at the University of Manchester.  We had quite a full day with plenty of interesting talks and discussion.  Since I’m starting some substantive work on this question now I kept some detailed notes during the course of the day, and I’m posting my thoughts here in case anyone finds it interesting.

I’m going to start by summarising the contents of the talks in the morning sessions.

Prof Adisa Adapagic, University of Manchester

Adisa opened the day with a look at how short-term funding affects research outcomes and integrity.  On a broader level, we know that the short-term nature of research finding has a number of effects on our research efforts:

  • Proposal preparation becomes a major time sink
  • Finding good researchers to join your projects can be difficult
  • The short timelines mean you may have a steep learning curve to climb in a short period
  • Publication pressure becomes even higher due to the time constraints
  • Reproducibility and reliability can suffer
  • Staff turnover increases
  • No continuity/job security for researchers

Reproducibility can suffer due to gaps in the data, or incomplete data, which can be difficult to deal with during a short project.  The quantity and reliability of your data may also be in question, but again that can be time-consuming to address.  These difficulties can then cause further problems during publication efforts, as the headlong rush to print can lead groups to take shortcuts.  Then we can end up with poorly-presented results based on incomplete data, and abstracts that oversell the paper’s contribution in order to make the project look good.

In order to improve these issues, Adisa proposed a few ideas:

  • Standardisation of data between disciplines
  • Use more open databases — stop clinging to your data!
  • Develop quality control methods

On the funding side, she argues that changes must be made to reduce these pressures that can lead to breaches of ethics.  Research funding is said to be ‘impact-driven’, but funding is short-term and impact is long-term (10+ years).  This leads to ethics pressures:

  • Chasing money means changing research direction — even into areas we don’t know that well
  • Publication pressures, particularly for young researchers
  • Publications suffer as we seek quantity over quality
  • Frequent self-plagiarism to produce papers faster
  • Reproducibility suffers due to poor quality/presentation of results

So what can we do to improve this situation?  Adisa offered a few suggestions on a general level:

  • Change from ‘short-termism’ to ‘long-termism’ — offer funding for longer-term projects
  • Change funding models completely to alleviate the pressure to get big grants all the time
  • Consider quality and integrity in assessing results
  • Develop ways to self-regulate our ethics
  • Push journals to get involved — their practices can exacerbate these problems

Peter Simpson — Director, N8 Research Partnership

Next up was Peter Simpson from the N8 Research Partnership, which focuses on fostering collaboration between academia and industry.  As a result his presentation focused more on funding considerations for interdisciplinary collaborations with businesses, which is not something I worry about too much but could certainly be relevant for other colleagues.

Peter summarised some of the challenges inherent to academia-industry collaboration:

  • Long-term partnerships are critical
  • First projects are often difficult, so long-term work allows better ideas to develop and flourish
  • Each side has different levels of urgency — businesses often seek quicker results
  • Openness and trust have to grow over time
  • Short-term funding can make these challenges more acute

The N8 Research Partnership itself seeks to promote research partnerships in the North of England.  The motivation here is to develop northern universities into ‘anchor institutions’ for regional economies.  In a post-industrial landscape where the former manufacturing powerhouses of the North are looking to rebuild their economies around research and innovation, the N8 sees itself as a key facilitator in building collaborations that can move this process forward.

In doing so, however, some challenges come to the foreground:

  • Culture clashes between academia and business
  • Unrealistic expectations from the business side
  • Frequent personnel changes and project closures can slow progress
  • Transparency can be an issue for the academics (we don’t like dealing with corporate secrecy!)
  • Business sometimes view academia as a cheap source of research (but less so nowadays)

In order to alleviate these issues, Peter suggested that academics should reinforce their innovative contributions by not just ‘doing what we’re told’ but suggesting and championing new ideas for these projects.  He proposed that ‘long-term thinking on short-term projects’ can remind businesses that academics are in a unique position to understand the research landscape and look further ahead to issues that will be important to businesses years down the line.

In terms of funding concerns, Peter suggested a few ways that funders could support this kind of work:

  • Undertake regular collaboration ‘health checks’
  • Ensure the continuity of lab-based scientists and project leads
  • Support the involvement of researchers with broader skill sets
  • Incorporate industrial collaboration in early-career researcher (ECR) training
  • Facilitate face-to-face meetings with higher-ups for junior research staff

Elizabeth Bohm — Senior Policy Advisor, The Royal Society

Elizabeth spoke to us about the culture of research in the UK, which was the subject of a major report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.  The aim of this project was to develop a constructive debate on the culture of research in the UK.  The final report was based on numerous discussion events and surveys performed in various areas of the UK research community.

When UK scientists were asked what words define good research, these were the top 5:

  1. Rigorous
  2. Accurate
  3. Original
  4. Honest
  5. Transparent

However the report also revealed a great deal of trepidation amongst the UK research community.  A few worries in particular topped the list:

  • Excessive competition
  • Funding issues
  • Research assessment methods
  • Research integrity
  • Career progression
  • Workload

In general we feel that science is extremely competitive, and that this brings out some of the best in us and also a great deal of the worst.  Funding in particular is an issue for UK academics:

  • Current trends lead to loss of creativity and innovation
  • Funding is too short-term
  • Funders are often risk-averse
  • Funds are disproportionately awarded to already-established scientists
  • Transparency issues — why are some projects not funded?

Research assessment is also a major concern, with some 58% of UK scientists stating that either they or their colleagues have been under pressure to compromise their research ethics in order to publish or receive research funds.  Young scientists under the age of 35 in particular report very high pressure in this area.  Elizabeth suggested that research institutions should provide training in good research practice from the very start of our academic careers, since it seems that the pressures of trying to establish oneself in science while under pressure to achieve quickly can lead to temptations to break ethics.

Career issues are another major area of concern:

  • Women in particular find it difficult to advance their careers
  • Culture of short-term results and productivity creates high pressure
  • Lack of time to think and start innovative projects
  • Very high stress levels in general
  • 54% of respondents think promotion systems have a negative impact on science in the UK

These results suggest that broader assessment criteria for promotion, mentoring practices within institutions, and developing good gender equality standards and guidance are critical to pushing back against these trends.

In general these core issues were reported by a very broad range of respondents, and there appears to be widespread agreement that these problems negatively impact UK science.  The report concludes that competition in science is a double-edged sword — it can push researchers to pursue loftier goals, but it also creates a great deal of stress, negative working environments, and a disproportionate focus on short-term results and quick publication.

Elizabeth points out that many of the stakeholders in UK research expressed a belief that these problems are out of their control — academics blame funders or managers, funders blame government, institutions blame academics, etc.  Thus in order to find a way forward, the entire community needs to engage in productive discussion about these problems and develop solutions that we can all get behind.

Andrew Miller — Former MP for Ellesmore Port and Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee

Andrew gave an interesting talk which was quite different in tone from the previous speakers.  As a former MP he spoke in the style of a politician — discussing some of the intricacies of government, relating stories and experiences while he was in government, and leaving aside the PowerPoint slides and bulleted lists.  As a consequence of this my notes here are rather less detailed, so I’ll just outline some generalities here.

Andrew seemed very aware about the issues posed by short-term funding pressures in science.  He argued that this focus on short-term results makes the research structure less robust overall — perhaps because this kind of funding environment leads to a focus on ‘safe’ research that relates to currently-fashionable problems, rather than leading the way on larger issues that await our society in the future.  He echoed previous speakers’ calls for reducing this time pressure, and expressed his belief that easing this pressure would make it easier for scientists to maintain their ethical frameworks rather than compromising themselves to obtain funding for their projects.

He spoke for some time as well about the need for researchers to engage more effectively with elected officials.  While the research councils are the people who actually disburse the funding, the structure of that system is imposed by central government — so when we have major concerns with how that structure operates, we need to lobby Parliament and government to raise our concerns.  In relation to this he discussed how the current government will be publishing a green paper soon on a proposed reorganisation of research funding in the UK.  Unfortunately this may mean some rather sweeping changes, including the consolidation of all the research councils into a single council, and of course the rumoured massive cuts in funding.  This would be a disaster, given that already the UK only spends 1.3% of its GDP on research — as compared to 7.8% in South Korea, 4.4% in Japan, etc.

I have to say I very much agree with Andrew’s statements on this front.  I’ve been very concerned that the only advocates we seem to have for universities and for research funding are our Vice-Chancellors and our research council leaders, neither of whom seem at all inclined to challenge the order of things in government.  Our union, UCU, works hard to lobby Parliament on these issues, but given the constant, sweeping, highly-damaging changes to UK higher education which the government imposes upon us all too frequently, it is difficult for the union to address research issues in sufficient depth.  With that in mind I feel we as academics need to organise some campaigns which express our discontent with the way things are going, and we must be prepared to stand up for ourselves if research funding is cut yet again.

Panel Discussion

At this point the speakers all gathered at the front of the room, where we had a brief panel discussion with questions from the audience.  Part of this was a discussion about publication norms, as a colleague in the audience (Dr Adam Glen, an outspoken advocate for post-docs) challenged Prof Adapagic on her status as an editor for two Elsevier journals — Elsevier being a highly-controversial academic publisher that charges exorbitant fees for journal subscriptions while posting absolutely enormous profit margins (by exploiting free academic labour that provides content and peer review).  She responded by expressing regret but saying that our research culture at the moment requires a certain amount of acceptance of these evil publishers so that we may advance our work.

I followed up by asking an admittedly aggressive question, pointing out that my two favourite journals at the moment (JASSS and Demographic Research) are both entirely open-access and charge no article publication fees.  I asked why we need for-profit publishers at all, when we live in the year 2015 in which server costs are minimal and basically anyone who wants to could start an open-access journal online and charge nothing for subscriptions or publication as long as they can stump up £10/month.  Prof Adapagic replied that she agreed with me entirely (!), but that she remained in a relationship with Elsevier despite being fully aware of how her work and expertise is being exploited because ‘we have to deal with this’ in our current research culture.  Elizabeth Bohm then jumped in to say that The Royal Society is hoping to improve things by experimenting with new modes of online publishing.  She said that for-profit publishers should remain in the sector because they have produced innovation in publication models in the past.

I strongly disagreed with this last point, because for-profit publishers have been completely behind the times in terms of open-access and Creative Commons publishing since their inception, and any ‘innovation’ they have produced was purely designed to allow them to continue to receive profits on the back of labour funded by the public purse while giving our community as few concessions as possible.  The chair of the session wanted to move on, however, so we left it there.

After this we had a tea break before the second session of talks, so I’m going to do the same now!  Tune in later for the second part of my excessively long summary of the conference.

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3 thoughts on “Rethinking UK Research Funding: Report, Part I

  1. Richard Shaw says:

    Hi Eric, I would just add that it is probably worth looking at the Royal Society Report on the Future of Scholarly Communication mentioned by Elizabeth Bohm which is here:

    https://royalsociety.org/~/media/events/2015/04/FSSC1/FSSC-Report.pdf

    Some of it you might find interesting particularly session 1 on day 2 which emphasises use of preprints and post publication review by peers as opposed to peer review.

    • Thanks Richard — I’ll take a look. That section on peer review sounds interesting, I’m generally skeptical of peer review these days and I like reading about alternative approaches.

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