Money, money, money: The key to research

The world of scientific research is changing explains Aidan Heeley – Hill

Image: Harriet Cheshire

Image: Harriet Cheshire

IN MARCH, it was announced that Yale University is to close its Climate and Energy Institute (YCEI) as of 30 June, despite student and staff furore.

This is a move that, according to Finnegan Schick of the Yale Daily News, will “leave a hole in climate and energy studies”. Relentless funding cuts and a lack of alumni donations were cited as reasons for the closure.
With the winding down of a key institute at one of the world’s most prominent universities, I was prompted to investigate the funding of science more broadly, particularly here in the United Kingdom.

In October 2010, when a newly elected Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition had been in power for six months, scientists petitioned outside 10 Downing Street against proposed funding cuts to research in the UK.
At that time, £4.6bn per year was allocated to scientific research by the UK government, with predicted cuts of a very substantial 25-40 per cent. Protestors managed to negotiate a funding freeze, meaning that, although no cuts were made, no more than £4.6bn per year would be allocated in the future. An additional 110 MPs and 33,000 signatures backed the movement.

However, fast-forward six years and figures from 2015 suggest that the UK is investing less than 0.5 per cent of its GDP in scientific research. This is the lowest of any G8 country according to The Guardian.

This seems very much at odds with Chancellor George Osborne’s view that Britain should be the best place globally to do research. With thousands of students coming to study in the UK every year, you would think that more investment was being spent on cutting edge discoveries. Indeed, historically, we are among the world’s greatest scientists, responsible for some truly groundbreaking findings.

Funding for scientific research typically comes through research councils, such as the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) among five others.

Scientists and universities apply to these councils through research and grant proposals. Information obtained from the University of York, through the Freedom of Information Act, shows that over the five-year period from 2010 to 2015, the University received nearly £15.5mn from NERC across the Biology, Chemistry and Environment departments combined. 2014/15 provided the most funding during this five-year period at nearly £5mn.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this information is how sporadic the funding is in terms of monetary value.

In 2010/11, the chemistry department received £229,955, but the following year received just under £2mn. A similar situation exists in the Environment department where £180,603 was received in 2013/14, but a little under £1mn the following year.
Of course, the number of proposals placed to the councils will differ from year to year, as will the amount of funding needed.

Nevertheless, one has to question how a department can, and indeed the University can, function effectively with such disparities in annual funding amounts. After speaking to Drs. Andy Marshall, Clare Hughes and Roman Ashauer of the Environment department, it is clear that research projects can vary greatly in terms of duration, from four weeks to two years. They suggest that funding requirements for single projects can cost anything from £10,000 to £10m.  This partially explains why funds differ so signifcantly each year.
On the University of York’s website there are set guidelines for what is expected in a grant proposal. These would apply to postgraduates applying for PhD projects.

Importantly for researchers this includes a justification of the idea including preliminary data in support of the objectives. This could be seen as a major barrier for novel ideas. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries have come about through chance.
The application process is long and requires many stages of reviewing. This can hold off projects for years. The tiresome process only increases the chances of another laboratory getting hold of information and starting competing projects.

Often projects stall purely because funds run out. The financial aspects of every stage of an experiment must be taken into account. For example, microarrays used to analyse the effect of  deletion of a certain gene on gene expression overall cost an average of £150.
Additional funding sources can be obtained through donors, but researchers also opt for more unconventional sources. Some may be familiar with groups such as Schools for Forests, supporting the CIRCLE initiative for biodiversity conservation and education, or even taken part in the FlaminGO! 10K Run at Flamingo Land where proceeds went to science funding.

Probably the most well known medical research funders are charities. They have the money and people power to drive large publicity campaigns. Think, Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.

These bodies have been well established for many years and have hundreds of avenues for raising money. From marathons to  Movember many of us have donated to friends or raised money ourselves through these foundations. The problem with this is that these charities will only provide funds to aid certain projects.

Many medical conditions, that are rising particularly quickly in the population such as dementia and tropical disease, have less representation, hence less funding. Research in these areas is therefore significantly lacking.

This behind the scenes aspect of science is very rarely exposed. Few individuals in the general public know that funding is a major constraint to research and understand the impact that raising money for lesser known foundations can help.

It is clear that during austerity, funding for research has taken a massive hit.  The research council funding system is also far from ideal, as researchers and universities compete for money from the same pot. If Britain is the best place to do research, then we need to drastically rethink our funding and increase the country’s investment in the industry.

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