Girl, Interrupting

February 18, 2011

Scientists need to ask ‘important’ questions – oh and stop “whingeing”

Scientists need to ask ‘important’ questions – oh and stop “whingeing”

Science question time on Feb 16th – put on by the Biochemical Society, CaSE (Campaign for Science and Engineering) and the good folks from Imperial College was, I thought, an excellent event. An invigorating panel loaded with a large variety of thought provoking questions. Sophie Scott was in my opinion the star of the panel with thoughtful and well-balanced comments and answers.

Mark Walport , Director of the Wellcome Trust, on the other hand, spent a fair proportion of his ‘air time’ telling scientists to ‘stop whingeing’, saying that scientists must ask ‘important’ questions – and defending, in a nutshell, an ‘excellence’ based structure of science research funding where less people are given more money. This wouldn’t lead to less jobs, he argued, but rather more focused work on ‘important’ questions. I am of course paraphrasing, Walport also had some good things to say, which I think were somehwat contradictory to his paraphrased statements above.

I have a lot to say about this but I will try to be brief

1 – I am so very tired of being hearing ‘scientists need to stop whingeing’ and the implication that ‘scientists’ are just lazy and not working on ‘important’ questions but rather as Walport suggested that lots of scientists sit around and work on non-important, esoteric, navel-gazing type of questions which are a waste of everyone’s time.

First of all this is hard to prove in any real sense, if you want to try and make a statement about this in terms of funding (who gets funded and who doesn’t), this doesn’t work so well. As almost everyone that writes grants is aware, you write a significant larger number of grants than you ever get funded for. Does this necessarily mean that your question isn’t important? but I will say more about this in a minute…

This attitude really bothers me. And its not just Walport (others, such as Vince Cable who said most reserach in the UK is ‘not excellent’ relatively recently)

Stop whingeing and get on with it
What bothers me about this is that it is just a throw-away thing to say, and it instills anger in people trying to do research, telling a group of educated people to shut up and do your job publicly only increases hostility between the people who are ‘in charge’ (of funding, of decisions, of whatever) and the people doing the science – Apparently pyschology isn’t an ‘important’ science because maybe if it was Walport would have read something about how bitching at people isn’t exactly the best way to get them to be efficient.

This attitude indicates that people like Walport aren’t listening to complaints by scientists – some may be legitimate some may not, but it seems to me if you are in some sort of position of administration for a grant funding body it should be a part of your JOB to listen to what the people that are doing the research actually think about how you are funding it. There are times when people do need to shut up and get on with it – but in this instance it is dismissive and an easy way out on Walport’s part. If you just tell people to shut up and go away it keeps you from having to address any real questions.

2 – Scientists need to be asking “important” questions.

Really, did we not know that? Most people that do scientific research feel they are asking important questions – I really doubt there are people that go to work and think – I am going to do my OWN research on a non-important question just becuase I don’t have anything else to do today.

and as @Stephen_Curry asked – well who decides what is ‘important’? I have blogged about this here, in the long-term you NEVER know where discoveries will come from. Do your peers decide? As Walport argued all funding comes by virtue of a peer-review grant process, yes it does, but peer-reviewers can be and are constrained, it depends on the funding scheme and importantly on the number of grants that are funded.
For instance, if all research councils decide that they are only going to fund certain topics than only people that work on these sexy topics will get funded. Deciding what topics are “sexy” is a dangerous game, as it is easy to identify sexy science when sexy science is ALREADY successful, but this greatly destroys your base for up and coming science or science that may well be “sexy” in 20 years, but maybe not so sexy now.

If only 3% of all grants are funded than many ‘important’ questions will get cut based on sheer numbers. Ranking importance isn’t easy to do for any peer-review group as they may be wrong and they don’t have crystal balls that peer into the future. Paraphrasing from the US Television Drama The West Wing, Einstein probably wouldn’t get funded today – people like Einstein would have been writing grants to funding bodies that were headed by people like Lord Kelvin who thought that physics was dead, in short he would have never gotten funded.

3 – People will keep their jobs they will just work on common problems (‘important’ questions)

This is good in some respects but it very much depends on the research. The Atomic bomb was a good example of very smart people working on a common problem. Working towards a specific technological advance is another very good example.
But only funding research like this is limiting and short-sighted.
One of the great strengths of the UK science research system, at least in the past, is that it tends to fund quite broadly – lots of ideas from blue skies research to established research – but you have to fund things across the board.

I am not arguing that really good scientists shouldn’t get money, they should and they already do, maybe they should get more but you have to fund younger scientists and less well known scientists with new ideas so that in 20 – 30 years you will have new sexy science instead of a monolithic non-diverse structure – like in ecology and finance – you need a diverse system to allow growth into the future. The danger is that if only 3 research topics get funded what happens when that research begins to reach a natural end? Where do you go next? If you have a pool of research (like a gene pool) you ensure, as much as you can ever ensure, that the soil is ready for the future and that you don’t end up with the scientific equivalent of the Hapsburg Chin.

Scientists as a group, of course have room for improvement, we can do things better, like communicate, but I don’t think continually telling us to get on with it, stop complaining and work on ‘important’ science is getting anyone anywhere. I think there needs to be some give on both sides – Scientists listing to what those in charge say and those ‘in charge’ taking some time and care to listen to working research scientists, not those who already have their FRS or Nobel prize, but those who are at different levels in their careers.

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