BIS experiment dismisses internationally excellent research

David Willetts, minister of science, yesterday confirmed on the Today programme that the science budget will be cut. Although I don’t agree with this policy, I was not surprised. The decision has been widely trailed, with most university departments quietly bracing themselves for this outcome.

Dr Stephen Henderson is a bioinformatics researcher at the UCL Cancer Institute

David Willetts, minister of science, yesterday confirmed on the  Today programme that the science budget will be cut. Although I don’t agree with this policy, I was not surprised. The decision has been widely trailed, with most university departments quietly bracing themselves for this outcome.

But in fact, I was more irked by the words of his boss, Vince Cable:

“…the bar will have to be raised. There was some estimates that something like 45% of the research grants that were going through were to research that was not of excellent standard”

I could pick out lots of awful research that my stupid, useless, lazy competitors, colleagues and compatriots were wasting their time and our money with. However to undertake this research, a panel of their peers must all have decided that their work was of ‘outstanding importance’, had ‘excellent potential for progress’, was ‘original’ and ‘internationally competitive’. These days you get top marks from the whole assessment panel or you get nothing.

For each of these empirically challenged incompetents who have got funded there are about four total losers who must have been worse – the success rate for Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Medical Research Council (MRC), or the medical charities such as Cancer Research UK and Wellcome is below 20 per cent.

It seems that this 45 per cent figure quoted by Cable has been obtained from the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) – an OFSTED-like report for university research departments. These give ratings on the basis of:

1: Recognised nationally;

2: Recognised internationally;

3: Internationally excellent;

4: World-leading;

5: You’re all great, carry on.

The best explanation I have read states that whilst 55% of funding went to grade 4 and 5 departments, 45% went to some that were only internationally excellent. On the Today programme these internationally excellent departments became in the words of Justin Webb ‘mediocre’.

There are problems with science funding by peer review. There is back-scratching, rival snubbing, a bias against high-risk ideas, a demand for preliminary data that can exclude young researchers, plus a huge workload for each successful or even failed application. No one, but no one has ever suggested to me that science funding was not competitive enough.

Professor Steve Smith, president of Universities UK said:

“Any proposal to cut the quality related research funding stream would damage the UK’s research base and the capacity for future innovation vital to our economy.”

So please Vince, cut the crap. If you plan to cut because you think the deficit is disastrous: then just say that. If you want 10 per cent of grants rather than 20 per cent to be funded: just say that. If you need there to be less scientists: admit it. Just don’t insult our intelligence.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today. 

17 Responses to “BIS experiment dismisses internationally excellent research”

  1. StephenH

    RT @leftfootfwd: BIS experiment dismisses internationally excellent research http://bit.ly/aFOpAz

  2. loveandgarbage

    Fantastic piece on science funding on LeftFootForward http://bit.ly/9Kl0Ym how internationally excellent research becomes "mediocre" in news

  3. Graeme Stirling

    RT @loveandgarbage: Fantastic piece on science funding on LeftFootForward http://bit.ly/9Kl0Ym how internationally excellent research be …

  4. Alex Marsh

    RT @leftfootfwd: BIS experiment dismisses internationally excellent research: http://bit.ly/aFOpAz writes @Malarky67

  5. Aidan Skinner

    RT @loveandgarbage: Fantastic piece on science funding on LeftFootForward http://bit.ly/9Kl0Ym how internationally excellent research be …

  6. Emma Nicol

    RT @loveandgarbage: Fantastic piece on science funding on LeftFootForward http://bit.ly/9Kl0Ym how internationally excellent research be …

  7. David Elsweiler

    RT @loveandgarbage: Fantastic piece on science funding on LeftFootForward http://bit.ly/9Kl0Ym how internationally excellent research be …

  8. mark grip

    BIS experiment dismisses internationally excellent research | Left …: David Willetts, minister of science, yeste… http://bit.ly/dcPc6d

  9. tom serona

    BIS experiment dismisses internationally excellent research | Left …: David Willetts, minister of science, yeste… http://bit.ly/9dWLGL

  10. Outsourcing Firm

    BIS experiment dismisses internationally excellent research | Left …: David Willetts, minister of science, yeste… http://bit.ly/drF8Ev

  11. Simon

    Some money could be saved by privatising Roger Scruton. Just a thought.

  12. Daniel Rivas

    The man who wrote this (my uncle) currently has bleached-blond hair; please take that into account when determining worth http://is.gd/f4u60

  13. Gerry

    and the world is flat according to the Coalition

    (well to some right wing zealot Tory nutters)

  14. Britain second only to US in terms of academic research | Left Foot Forward

    […] of the top 10 positions (Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial) followed by a smattering of ‘mediocre’ institutions claiming 29 of the top 200. Whilst Germany and Japan are industrial behemoths – the UK reins […]

  15. Claire French

    We have scientific research… or did until you announced cuts. http://bit.ly/dsxssS #ldconf

  16. Joel Voysey

    RT @leftfootfwd: Cable dismisses internationally excellent research http://is.gd/f4u60

Leave a Reply