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Research matters: Cash for questions

Academics are complaining on the Downing Street website that ministers are skewing funding towards research that benefits the economy.

The relationship between scientists and government is often a turbulent one, but this summer a spat is developing of larger-than-usual proportions. Around the country, a network of academics, growing in size every day, is mobilising to voice increasing anger at what they see as unacceptable political interference at the heart of their working lives.

The campaigning vehicle for these irate professors, lecturers and postgraduates is a petition posted on the Downing Street website by Professor John F Allen, a biochemist from Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL). Its central message is that the allocation of the UK's research budget has become skewed by ministers, towards projects that promise economic benefits and away from what they say research should really be about: advancing the frontiers of human understanding.

The campaign has attracted the support of hundreds of PhD students, many of whom see a threat to the autonomy of their own research projects. The petition, which appeared at the beginning of last month, already has more than 1,600 signatures, reflecting support from junior postgraduates to the most senior professors.

In five crisply written paragraphs, Allen alleges that the six research councils – the bodies charged by government with allocating research funding – have adopted a policy of handing out money to scientists only when the outcome of their research is already known, and when that outcome can also be linked to future economic benefit.

This, says Allen, contradicts the meaning of the word research. His petition argues that "science has never worked in this way, and never could. Where a specific outcome can be predicted with confidence, then there is no research".

Allen admits to being driven partly by a personal gripe. A recent application for funding, for his team of researchers and postgraduates to continue their investigations into photosynthesis, was turned down by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

But he says he's equally motivated by a mounting frustration at how all research councils are, in his view, increasingly anxious to demonstrate to government that they are delivering something relevant to the pressing needs of the UK economy. "We have a gradual erosion of one of the important principles, which was there at the inception of the research councils, namely that scientific research must be free of political control."

The intensity of the anger felt by Allen and his supporters has its roots in a new administrative hoop through which researchers seeking research funding have to jump. Since the beginning of the year, as part of their application for grants, academics have to complete a two-page form outlining the likely economic impact of their work. It is this that has really made them see red.

Philip Moriarty, a physicist specialising in nanotechnology at Nottingham University, says this requirement, which is forcing scientists to think of the marketability of their work, runs contrary to the essence of what university research should be about, namely blue-skies thinking.

He cites the ground-breaking Nobel prize-winning work of Peter Mansfield at his own university, which pioneered the MRI technology, whose fruits are in evidence in body-scanning machines at scores of hospitals around the country.

"That stemmed out of very fundamental research and was the result of serendipity and natural curiosity," he argues – a point echoed by no lesser a figure than Lord (Martin) Rees, professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge University, and president of the Royal Society.

"None of those who worked on the magnetic properties of atomic nuclei had any thought that their work would one day have medical applications in MRI scanners," he wrote recently.

Rees sympathises with the petitioners, and is critical of the research councils' new rules for grant applications. He says: "The economic impact statement sends an unfortunate signal. It'd be better if any inquiries about that impact were made towards the end of the grant period rather than before it's awarded."

Moriarty says academics resent having to waste time, when making applications for research council funding, describing the potential economic spin-offs of their proposed work.

"We are trying to shoehorn our work into different boxes, even though as we are writing this stuff we know we don't believe it," he says. But his greater fear is that forcing scientists to work this way will damage Britain's performance as a crucible of frontier research.

"If you always focus on how to get products to market, you erode the long-term possibility of truly innovative ground-breaking work. If this continues, there won't be a science base to make discoveries of the sort that led to MRI and DNA advances."

The view is endorsed by Mike Watkinson, a reader in chemistry at QMUL, whose own research has spawned a spin-off company which is trying to develop a clinical tool to help dentists detect active gum disease.

"I completely understand why there needs to be accountability for taxpayers' money being spent on research," he says. "But I think the way the research councils are going about it is wrong-headed and reflects a lack of understanding of how science works, and a lack of science background among politicians and civil servants."

Andrew Stannard, who is doing a PhD in physics at Nottingham University, is among the more junior postgraduates who've signed the petition. He fears PhD students in general would see a narrowing in scope of their own work if the new research councils' approach becomes entrenched.

"I feel the things I have pursued on my own have been the most rewarding, and I feel the new policy takes away freedom and creativity, which are the attributes of doing good science," he says.

Although the most prominent supporters of Allen's petition are laboratory dwellers, there's been no shortage of colleagues from the social sciences adding their signatures. For David Seymour, a law lecturer at Lancaster University, the new research councils' stipulation is consistent with a trend he identifies within government whereby, in his view, business considerations are elbowing aside academic factors.

"What really kicked me into action was when higher education was put into the new business department at Cabinet level," he says. "If you put this together with the 'economic impact' thing from the research councils, it doesn't bode well. I don't think there ever was a golden age for research, but pressure is being ratcheted up and moving in a direction I'm not happy with."

But despite this weight of criticism, Professor Ian Diamond, the chairman of Research Councils UK, the umbrella body representing all research councils, considers the petition unfair, and confesses that he "simply doesn't know" why so many academics are upset.

He rejects the accusation that the new policy is the result of government pressure, and denies that the absence or presence of predicted economic outcomes sways decisions on grants.

"We're not looking for researchers to turn themselves inside out pretending there'll be an economic impact," he says. "If there isn't one, they should just say so. And they will not be disadvantaged in any way."

The fact is, he says, that the pot of money available, which has gone up in real terms in the last decade, is not big enough to be able to fund all research proposals, even those of a high quality. And he always feels deep sympathy for those who fail to get the funding they're after.

"It is one of the saddest things that I have to do in my role to write to a colleague and say their proposal has been turned down," he says.

Read the petition at: http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/honest-discovery

'I've done this because many of us are in despair'

John F Allen has been professor of biochemistry at Queen Mary, University of London since 2005. On his appointment, he received a Royal Society-Wolfson research merit award, a five-year grant channelled through universities to help them attract scientists of outstanding achievement and potential. He arrived at Queen Mary after 12 years as a professor of plant cell biology at the University of Lund, Sweden and three years as professor of plant physiology at the University of Oslo.

Born in Newport, south Wales, his education took him to King's College, London, Oxford University and research posts in the US. In his specialist field of photosynthesis, he has addressed seminars in 15 countries. Among his more eye-catching work of the past decade are studies showing links between how plants convert sunlight into energy and how humans get energy from their food by burning it with the oxygen they breathe.

This petition has launched him into the public and political spotlight for the first time in his career.

"I've taken this step because so many of us are now in despair at the time and resources thrown away in writing meticulously argued research proposals that are then just trashed for idiotic reasons," he says.