Costs, investments and empty labs

This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer

I’ve just seen the shiny new(ish) video for Cancer Research UK’s new campaign called Create the Change. It’s about raising money to help fund their contribution to the Francis Crick Institute, in which they are joined in consortium by the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, UCL, Imperial College London and King’s College London. They’re looking for £100m.

Personally I believe that the Francis Crick Institute is a great idea, but there are significant problems and risks associated with building and launching it at a time of severe cutbacks, and not just in capital and from government. The investment comes at the same time as CRUK (late last year) and Wellcome Trust (early last year) decisions to cut their project grants. This is a huge blow for researchers in the biomedical field, particularly young researchers. It is already very difficult to secure research funding and these decisions exacerbate such problems.

UK grant application success rates are currently around 20%, which brings its own dilemmas, and with competition increasing and renewed emphasis on excellence (seemingly being framed as if mediocre was OK before), many are at risk of exclusion from some of the foremost sources of research funding. However, if our commitment to fundamental research is to be preserved at a level which can maintain our future research excellence, we need to invest in potential. At the moment, the losers of increasingly demanding competition risk exclusion for not being judged ‘excellent’ enough. The Wellcome Trust’s long-term investigator awards are praiseworthy, avoiding the stop-start disruption which affects the planning and productivity of labs. But cutting project grants just increases the uncertainty and instability for those who are not lucky enough to secure one of these, which is the majority.

Fundamentally, project grants are increasingly hard to find. Will the paucity of opportunities start to drive researchers abroad – will there be any talent to fill the labs of the Francis Crick Institute in years to come? Are the differences between costs and investments being fully realised?

4 thoughts on “Costs, investments and empty labs

  1. It’s certainly all too easy for policy-makers and other funders such as the Wellcome Trust, especially when times are tough, to forget that they are not simply funding research (paying people to produce scientific output) but are the collective stewards of a reserach ‘system’. The system needs to be sustained and capacity maintained for the future and indeed many of the social and economic benefits of research actually stem from the health and dynamism of the ‘system’ and not from the the impacts of specific bits of research. For instance the research system is an important component in our capacity to assess and absorb science and technology from outside – that is it is our entry ticket to global science and technology.

    It is thus by no means obvious that a sustainably ‘excellent’ system is the same thing as ‘a lot of excellent research’ and a defensive stance of concentrating resources ever more tightly on ‘the most excellent’ research/researchers is likely to create rigidities which will damage the longer-term ‘excellence’, adaptability and capacity to renew itself of the research system.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful input Kieron. This move away from funding the ‘system’ does have worrying implications.
    Off the top of my head, another example of this is the BBSRC changing the way they fund PhDs, so that fewer students in fewer centres will be supported. You have to wonder whether this is sustainable.

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