Steve Connor: A painless approach to research funding

Science Notebook: Dr Lane's research could have implications for the ageing process or even cancer
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The Independent Online

Science in Britain is usually funded by grants from research councils. It involves much bureaucracy, form filling and peer review. Scientists themselves frequently complain that they can waste a lot of time applying for grants only to be told that their project, although worthy, cannot be funded because of competition from other researchers.

A refreshingly alternative form of research funding is being tried out at University College London, which has just provided a reader's salary for three years – £150,000 in total – to Nick Lane in the department of genetics, evolution and environment. Dr Lane, an acclaimed science writer as well as geneticist, is being freed of any of the strict rules, peer review and deadlines normally associated with research grants.

His project, one of 30 submissions for the special Provost's venture research fellowship, is to study chemiosmosis, the process whereby living cells power themselves by an unexpected electrical process. How chemiosmosis is controlled may explain why complex cells evolved just once on Earth, and the answers Dr Lane is seeking could have wide-ranging implications for such things as the ageing process or even cancer.

The fellowship's selection team were impressed by Dr Lane's insightful, open-ended and fresh approach to studying a scientific problem. It is a pity that there are not more funding opportunities along these liberal lines to encourage Britain's brightest scientific minds. It is the sort of funding freedom enjoyed by many great scientists in history.

Working up a lather

How do you get people – especially men – to wash their hands with soap? The answer according to a sneaky study carried out in a motorway service station is to shame them into doing it.

A quarter of a million people were automatically counted as they used the station's toilets and their soap washing was monitored by on-line sensors. Only about a third of men, and two thirds of women, actually used any soap while hand washing. The scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found the best message to improve soap take-up in men was to flash the sign: "Is the person next to you washing with soap?" Women responded best to messages of disgust such as: "Soap it off or eat it later."

Top of the class

Further evidence that British science is in good shape compared with other countries. The European Molecular Biology Organisation has just elected 60 new members from research institutes across Europe.

Members are elected on their scientific excellence, as judged by their fellow scientists. Nearly half of the new members work in the UK, a much higher proportion than for any of the other 15 countries on the list.