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.

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