The happy accidents that come from blue-skies research are gold dust for scientists, and help them to push back against political demands for applied work. Who doesn’t know by now that we have basic research to thank for the World Wide Web? Who hasn’t heard that curious researchers trying to work out how bacteria biochemically tick stumbled on the CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing techniques that have gone on to transform biotechnology?
Still, political support for a thriving fundamental research base cannot be taken for granted. So two unexpected — and quite different — moves announced this month are worth noting and celebrating.
On 15 July, the hard-nosed European Investment Bank, which lends with favourable terms to European Union member states to support EU policy objectives, gave a massive loan to Greece to start up an agency for basic research. This not only provides a much needed moral boost for Greece, which has had to live for years with the label ‘credit-unworthy’, but it also sends a crystal-clear message to politicians around the world on the clear importance of pure science to a secure economic future.
Then, at the biennial European Open Science Forum in Manchester, UK, on 26 July, European Research Council (ERC) president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon announced that the council will start to monitor the outcomes of the research it funds. The ERC, which was founded in 2007 and awards sought-after grants that confer immense prestige on recipients, aims to systematically build a body of evidence to demonstrate the value of pure research beyond well-celebrated examples such as those mentioned above.
In the past 18 months, the ERC has quietly carried out a pilot effort to evaluate 199 of its first completed projects. It did not take the easy option of just looking at bibliometrics. It wisely took the more informative but more difficult option of asking experts not to get hung up on numbers, but to make judgements based on their expertise. They had to grade the scientific success of each project and assess its impact on the world outside science.
The results? The ERC seems to be a resounding success. (Although most of the reviewers had worked with the council before and so can’t be classed as wholly independent.) Almost three-quarters of the projects were judged to have generated a scientific breakthrough or major scientific advance, and one-quarter had — or might have in the future — an impact on the economy, society or policymaking. The exercise cost a mere €200,000 (US$220,000), a tiny fraction of the ERC budget.
This is a very small qualitative study that has some flaws (see page 477), and the results cannot be extrapolated to the 6,000 or more grants, worth €9.8 billion, that the ERC has so far paid out. But the evaluation process is itself under constant review and many of its flaws should be ironed out in future rounds.
The results of the pilot will surprise few scientists, given the well-honed and widely admired selection procedures of the ERC. But as the years go by, they will add up to a convincing portfolio to present to politicians, showing that ERC spending on basic research is not wasted — it usually leads to scientific success, which in turn often leads to positive outcomes for society.
This type of retrospective audit is rare. And it is perhaps surprising that national research agencies around the world do not do it. The DFG in Germany, for example, feels that its own selection processes are reliable enough not to require further proof of this type — but then, in Germany, basic research is unusually well protected from the vagaries of politics. The time may be ripe for a modest investment like the ERC’s to be more widely applied.
The struggle between politicians and fundamental researchers is eternal, and understandably so. In democracies, politicians have to demonstrate to their electorates every five years or so that they have presided over serial successes and have not thrown away taxpayers’ money on self-indulgent frippery. The scientific community has to find ways to continually show them that it is producing some of the successes. The strong endorsement of basic research by the European Investment Bank is a useful card that can be widely played to this end. And the ERC’s example is one to follow: gather evidence for the worth of evidence-based arguments.
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Ananyo Bhattacharya's article decrying how scientists have sold their souls to Mammon paints a truly alarming picture. He seems to suggest that the once noble British scientist has been reduced to serfdom, only awarded grants on the promise of economy-boosting innovation and commercial success.
What's worse, this promise isn't even made by scientists themselves. Instead, the wily science minister David Willetts, helped by mendacious mandarins and urged on by scheming sociologists, has conspired to replace intellectual excitement with boring utilitarianism. The Golden Age of academic freedom is over – apparently.
Bhattacharya's article was stirring stuff and a provocative read. It must have been fun to write. Unfortunately, it relies too heavily on supposition and misunderstanding to contribute much that is meaningful to an important debate about the relationship between public funds and public science. There have already been pointed critiques of the article from Kieron Flanagan and Ian Hopkinson, but our principal difficulty with the piece is that it ignores the obvious questions of why the taxpayer should fund science, and how the science community should make that case.
On Twitter, Bhattacharya defended his article as a principled and passionate defence of basic research. To give him his due, we do indeed need passion and principles just as much as we need basic research. However, we also need pragmatism. There are (thankfully) many differences between MPs and scientists, but one commonality is that as people in receipt of public support, financial or otherwise, we must be prepared to make a good account of ourselves. On balance, scientists outperform their parliamentary counterparts on that front, but that doesn't mean we can be complacent.
Pragmatism does indeed involve some compromise. Bhattacharya correctly identifies this as a source of friction with elected politicians eager to have "results" – for which read "economic growth" – to show for the investments made. Hence the impact agenda, which obliges scientists to at least consider the economic and societal benefits of their work. They do this prospectively in project grant applications to the research councils, and retrospectively as part of the current Research Excellence Framework, which will evaluate the quality of the UK research base.
Bhattacharya sees the impact agenda as a pernicious influence, but he overestimates the impact of "impact", as it were. Agreed, it is by no means perfect, and this response to his article is not meant to be a defence of how it has been handled, but his claim that there has been a calculated acquiescence is incorrect.
The scientific community is in fact extremely wary of the government's bean-counting instinct, fearing it will accomplish the very opposite of what it is intended to. The cool welcome that the impact agenda received from scientists when it was first rolled out forced the research councils to refine it. The policy is not a decree to simply follow research programmes that will pay short-term dividends.
There may be residual difficulties at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), but at Imperial College last month, the chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) was happy to publicly affirm that, when its panels of scientists meet to decide on grant awards, the quality of the science therein is taken as the most important criterion for success. Impact statements assessing future potential are only considered in the case of a tie-break between two applications of equal scientific merit.
Problems of the measurement, or mis-measurement, of the "value" of science remain, regardless of how it is determined. At the same time it is reasonable for the government of the day, as the representative of the taxpayer, to consider how publicly funded scientists might help with national and international challenges, such as pollution, global warming, food production, disease or ageing populations.
We also need to acknowledge and understand the role that science has in aiding economic growth, since only through prosperity will we be able to fund solutions to these challenges. It would be unreasonable for scientists to think themselves above such concerns, particularly when we argue for increased funding in straitened times – as we continue to do.
The solutions to many of today's challenges may well come ultimately from the funding of basic research, but there is also a place for directed endeavours. There is no question of abandoning blue-skies research, but rather of finding an agreed balance between curiosity-driven science and applied work. In a democratic society that is something that scientists and politicians and the public should be talking about, but – by and large – we do not.
As scientists and campaigners we will continue to stand up and say that basic research must be protected, not only because of its track record of success but also its intrinsic worth. Ideas, not economies, are what really inspire us. Of course, there will always be exceptions and the matter remains too complex to do proper justice to here, but there has been no Faustian bargain.
What is beyond doubt is that the participation of scientists – sociologists included – in the debate with government about what we can offer and what we owe to our fellow citizens is a good thing.
Imran Khan is director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering. Stephen Curry is a professor of structural biology at Imperial College and vice-chair of Science is Vital. He writes regularly about science on his Reciprocal Space blog