3 Years of Academia Nuts

I have been a lecturer at a UK university for just over 3 years.  This means that I’ve passed probation, completed the teaching in higher education course and submitted a handful of research grant applications including the EPSRC first grant.  I work at an institution which values teaching and research equally, something that drew me to apply here in the first place, and an idea that I am personally quite proud of.  That dual focus brings about some tensions however, and there are always going to be people who value research more heavily and those who value teaching more heavily.  It’s difficult sitting on the fence between the two.

Over the last 3 years I’ve witnessed some pretty fundamental changes in how chemistry research is funded.  Some of these changes are due to the current financial situation faced by the whole country and it is only right and fair that all sectors improve efficiency and take the responsibilities of tax payer’s money seriously.  Some of these changes are due to a change in philosophy of those who would fund chemistry research, changes that at times have seemed contradictory and often perplexing.  The drive for impact and economic advantages is clearly at odds with the academic perspective of knowledge generation, but efficient and timely commercialisation of research is not, in itself to blame.

When I started, back in early 2008, EPSRC had a number of schemes to support new academics.  The first grant scheme is the most notable, and at the time was uncapped both with regard to finance and duration.  In 2009 a cap was imposed to limit the value to £125k and the duration to 2 years.  At this point it became impossible to fund a PhD studentship on the first grant scheme.  It is now impossible to fund a PhD studentship on EPSRC standard responsive mode grants, and as hit the headlines yesterday, this results in a drop of approximately 1000 funded PhD places in the coming academic year.  There was also a CASE award for new academics scheme in operation, and critically one could apply for this without eliminating the opportunity to apply for a first grant.  This ended in late 2007/early 2008 although the standard CASE scheme still exists.  Another change that has slipped in was the defining of certain fellowships such as Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships as postdoctoral fellowships and holders of such fellowships therefore ineligible to apply for first grants and the like.  There are a number of fellowship schemes in UK academia that exist in a grey area, supporting researchers make the transition from postdoctoral research (in which they are guided by a senior academic) to research fellows (more independence) and potentially into lecturing roles.

In 2008 the Research Assessment Exercise was carried out, the final under the acronym RAE.  The Research Excellence Framework, REF now looms large over all of us.  The RAE results were curiously optimistic at a time when things didn’t look brilliant: they chose to reward excellence by the distribution of funding wherever it was found.  Instead of concentrating the monies on the biggest and brightest research intensive institution, great research was to be rewarded.  Of course there were winners and losers with this move: some research intensive universities probably lost out, and some smaller institutions got more money than anticipated (or hoped for).  This seems to have been completely reversed with many of the budget cuts that have occurred over the last few months, with only research scoring very highly being funded.  This obviously plays havoc with institutional budgets and the like, but as all other funding sources are being reduced or altered or made more conditional, we’re getting used to dealing with it.

The notion of focussing research monies into specific areas of excellence was further crystallised by the decision of EPSRC to stop funding PhD studentships on standard responsive mode research grants and focus on doctoral training centres, with doctoral training accounts still being available to those institutions with sufficient research income.  This may be the decision that accounts for the figures quoted yesterday of a reduction in the number of funded PhD places by EPSRC.  That’s what the EPSRC spokesperson comments on the BBC article imply anyway.  This clearly has a massive impact on institutions with a limited number of research active staff who may still be carrying out excellent research (those that RAE 2008 sought to reward), but without the  quantity of research funding necessary for a doctoral training account, or the concentration necessary to establish a doctoral training centre.  These moves impact the diversity of EPSRC funded research in ways that we probably can’t calculate.

A further blow came earlier this week with the announcement of priority areas and themes for EPSRC funding.  Priority areas are not a new thing, but the idea seems to be that research out with these areas will receive less funding just by virtue of not being in the priority area.  We could argue that taxpayer money should fund research that is useful to the country as a whole and that the bodies responsible for administering such funding have a right to set priorities.  There have been a lot of arguments to that end in the United States of America over the last few years, with congressional outrage at people researching topics that at first glance seem somewhat obscure and not directly relevant to ‘real life issues’.  The problem that we face as researchers is that we simply cannot predict the routes our research will take us.  We must keep open minds as we do research to allow us to investigate problems fully and notice interesting or unexpected results that may spin out a whole new route of enquiry.  When we become too fixed on a target or result (or application), we lose our critical judgement and may be at risk of bias when interpreting results. Diversity is what makes a strong research base, not forcing all researchers to march along the same paths, pursuing similar goals.   And we would all do well to realise that sometimes our research does not work, but the knowledge created in carrying out that project may lead to something far more exciting and successful than we could have anticipated at the outset.

One key area of concern that I have is the reduction in funding for synthetic organic chemistry.  While I am not an organic chemist, I use synthetic organic chemistry in my work every single day.  I rely on those chemists who can work through endless reactions, improving yields, making procedures simpler and more effective, to give me the building blocks to synthesis materials with advanced properties.  Their loss is will be my loss in a few years time.  Without the expansion of known molecules and reaction routes to them, without the knowledge generated in tackling elaborate total syntheses for molecules with incredibly beautiful structures, without synthetic organic chemistry, my research and that of many others is diminished even if it is part of a priority area.

So where do we go from here? I fear the further cuts and prioritisation that will come if the current culture of economic importance continues to drive research funding.  I do have the choice to try and tailor my research interests to suit some of the priority areas, perhaps giving me a better chance at funding but on some levels that feels wrong, like exploiting other people’s misfortune.  On the other hand, you have to play the hand your dealt and the current state of UK research funding rewards those who can play the game effectively and adapt to ever changing conditions.  It rewards those who seek industrial collaboration and research with more obvious routes to commercialisation.  It rewards entrepreneurship but seems to penalise curiosity and broad scientific enquiry.  It will take decades to realise the effects of these changes, both good and bad effects.  It will take decades to determine whether focussing research funding into certain areas does produce better results and more economic benefits, if those outcomes can be measured at all.  In the meantime we’re all holding on and hoping it doesn’t get worse.

2 thoughts on “3 Years of Academia Nuts

  1. The one thing that I cannot cease to find amusing, in this overall climate of relentless pursuit of “commercial applications”, is that at the end of the day the evaluation of what is “likely to result in important technological and commercial spinoffs” is made by people who are very far removed from the research itself — in fact, individuals whose knowledge of the subject matter is tentative at best. The result is that often times those who thrive are not the ones whose research effort is most “useful”, defined in the most utilitarian sense, but rather those who can best package whatever it is that they do to make it sound like a potential pot of gold. Just look at the stunning amount of money poured into this colossal scam that is “nanotechnology”…

  2. Yes, I’d rather see prioritisation for key areas of human/environmental need rather than commercially driven outcomes. The two can be the same, but they aren’t really. That should be in addition to a diverse research portfolio, not instead of one.

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