Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Research funding

Some of the greatest pieces of scientific research have developed from individuals who have strayed off the beaten track and observed something a bit odd and followed it through. It's the initial observation itself that often provides the impetus, Fleming might have discovered penicillin, but it was a massive development afterwards by other scientists who produced the results. Yet it's only because the state didn't interfere (then) with research of all kinds that some of the greater discoveries were made.

The future of British science is under serious threat because its funding body is making “disastrous errors”, more than 70 senior academics have warned.
In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, they claim changes introduced by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council are “damaging scientific discovery in Britain” because civil servants have taken on new powers to dictate what type of science is given money.
The letter says a pledge by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, to make Britain “the best place in the world to do science” would be difficult to achieve because the council had “exceeded its remit so spectacularly”.
The group calls on Mr Willetts to make sure the research council is either overhauled or replaced.
Prof David O’Hagan from the University of St Andrews, one of the signatories, said: “We’re being asked to identify where our programme may go in 10 to 50 years’ time. This is anti-intellectual. Nobody involved in research would pretend to know where embryonic ideas may lead.”
In a sense they are quite right, no-one knows where the next greatest discovery will come from and you can probably rest assured that it wont come from anything that Whitehall wishes to be researched.
Attila Emecz, director of strategy at the research council, said the accusations were “a major and gross misrepresentation”, adding: “We believe the new policies will protect and improve UK research.”
Yet this is the mindset that funds the current craze in climate research, not because it will make any major discoveries (probably) but because it is intended to justify increased taxation. The government isn't interested in disproving global warming climate disruption, because if it did it wont be able to justify what they've done to promote useless alternative energy schemes, whilst also not funding research into shale gas extraction.
Unfortunately for a lot of universities funding is a major issue and they tend to follow the money to a certain extent. So if the government want to fund research into climate change that's what the universities will research, often as in the case of the Climate research Unit in East Anglia making stuff up to keep the funding coming in.
In an ideal state, universities would simply be told to research anything they felt was worth looking into, the governments obsession with getting value for money along with making sure their own pet prejudices are promoted means that nothing of the sort happens.
research will still get done, there's no doubt about that, but unless it's freed from the constraints of government (Whitehall) guidelines then chance discoveries will be made elsewhere.
We have a tradition of making great discoveries in this country, if this carries on though, that's now at an end.

2 annotations:

opsimath said...

Indeed - I'm sure you remember, QM, when the laser was described as 'a solution looking for a problem'.

Plus ca change ...

microdave said...

"Whilst also not funding research into shale gas extraction."

But finding the cash to buy new 4x4 fire engines for Norfolk - because of "Climate Change"...