Girl, Interrupting

April 25, 2010

Should scientific funding really be MORE elite?

Filed under: science — sylviamclain @ 4:55 pm
Tags: , , ,

or how to creatively hamstring scientific progress….

Funding the scientifically elite is fundamentally short sighted.

The new (or almost new) head of the Royal Society in Britain, Sir Paul Nurse, wants to reform scientific funding – joy!
Something does need to be changed, as funding to do scientific research is shrinking to the point where it is almost non-existent in the UK and other parts of the world.

But what Nurse proposes will in reality make the situation worse– he wants to make funding more elite or in his words – “I think this has got to be solved really by having support systems that can reflect the fact that some people are very, very good”

Ignoring for the moment the class-based, bigoted language problems with Nurse’s statement – even though he says he is really non-elitist in other parts of his life – I am sure he has lots of friends who are not elite; this is going the wrong way for funding in fundamental scientific research. The system already funds these people who are very, very good; so do they get even more money at the expense of everything else?

Nurse also says “Much of the [current non-elite] work is worthy but the question is, do we have enough at that top end who make real discoveries?”

This ignores the fact that that boring ‘worthy’ science is what is needed for the ‘top end’ elite to make those real discoveries…

As Issac Newton once said, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ even though Newton himself liked to squash the opposition like small ants (Newton, wasn’t a nice guy) – the point is well taken. Before we can get to the sexy stuff, there is lots of detailed graft you have to do… if you stop funding anything that is not a top discovery – you strip the backbone of science.

Funding the elite would also obliterate the important discoveries that no one ever expected; and kill some important research just because the funders presuppose that it is crap – Lord Kelvin (who was a very, very good scientist back in the day) once said that ‘radio has no future’ and that ‘X-rays were a hoax’, it is probably a good thing that Lord Kelvin wasn’t in charge of handing out scientific funding to who he thought was elite.

Nurse only really has a point when you think about industrial or applied research which solves ‘societal problems’ and has a specific goal. Arguably the best example of this is the Manhattan project which had a specific goal – build a nuclear weapon. The US government hired the best ‘elite’ scientists as well as thousands and thousands of the presumably non-elite – and in the end, they were successful. In fact government and industry should do more of this – using focused big-cash methods to solve problems such as for alternate energy to fossil fuels but they, TOO, need to keep the funding up even when the science seems slow or not a ‘top discovery’ – science takes time and, again, a whole lot of graft. (As an aside the Royal Society and similar funding bodies don’t typically have a large amount of money anyway – so these ‘elite’ funding methods would be like firing a couple of mail room clerks to save costs at Lehman Brothers.)

But there is a difference between industrial (or applied) research and fundamental research.

Both use scientific methods to solve problems but fundamental research is considered distinct from applied research. As a loose definition, ‘fundamental research” (such as that which is funded by the Royal Society) is academic. It is research that may not have a direct application which is apparent or immediate but does actually add to the wider scientific body of knowledge. And applied research is well, applied.

The line between fundamental and applied research is often fuzzy. Some fundamental research eventually leads to practical applications – the discovery of the neutron for instance was fundamental, but led to lots of industrial applications in the long run and the big government funded NASA program brought us Velcro, same idea – you never know where science may go and what discoveries will be made.

And Sir Nurse should know better.


  1. My own beef is the underfunding for theorists. T has struggled throughout his career to get funding so that he can take on a student or two. It has been painful and frustrating. In his current class, not a single student is even considering theory. And yet, how can Science move forward without innovative theory to lead the way, any more than it can without the fundamental, incremental research you mention? It’s just not on, as they say in your (current) neck of the woods.
    I admire your writing very much Sylvia. Multi-gifted!

    Comment by Akkie Bardoel — April 26, 2010 @ 11:03 am | Reply

    • I would agree with you Agatha – what theorist do is incredibly important – a perfect example of this is those who refused to believe it when Lord Kelvin said ‘physics is dead’ – and theorized anyway….
      This I think is one of the primary problems with the ‘elite’ model – you can’t force new top discoveries as Sir Paul says, and they come from people you don’t exactly expect (you in the broader funding body sense)

      Comment by sylviamclain — April 26, 2010 @ 1:28 pm | Reply

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sylvia McLain, Michael Green. Michael Green said: Sir Paul Nurse, new head of the Royal Society, talks elitist nonsense apparently: […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Should scientific funding really be MORE elite? « Girl, Interrupting -- — April 28, 2010 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

  3. […] also think by excluding people you cut your base, you necessarily limit what can be done, just like only funding the elite. And while —– (insert whatever under-represented group you like) aren’t […]

    Pingback by On women in science « Girl, Interrupting — September 1, 2010 @ 10:44 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: