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Dec 02 2009

There may be blue skies ahead

You have to feel sorry for Lord Drayson. At a time when he is doing his best to stand up for science and the funding of science in what are very difficult economic circumstances, where every department in government must show it’s worth, scientists appear to be trying to hack his legs off; by balking at the proposal that they should explain their impact on society and insisting that they should be left to do ‘blue skies’ research. I refer to the recent debate hosted by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES): “Blue skies ahead? The prospects for UK science“, a discussion which centred around the impact of science on society and how you might increase that impact, how impact is evaluated, the role of blue skies research and the crisis at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

In this post I’ll try to explain why scientists are so impassioned about the subject of impact assessment and make a couple of suggestions as to how we might collectively do this better.

Impact means several things in this context: there is the HEFCE Impact pilot exercise, which is retrospective and in pilot phase at the moment and there are impact statements in grant applications which were introduced this year which should provide a prediction of the economic and societal impact of the work proposed. I suspect it is the impact statements in grant applications which are causing the real concern here, and I also suspect that Lord Drayson was talking primarily about the former, and the audience and panel were talking about the latter at the THES event.

Before I go on I will provide a short autobiography to provide context for my comments: I’m currently a research scientist in a large company, I’ve been here for 5 years but until the age of 35 I was an academic scientist, rising to the position of tenured lecturer in the physics department of what is now Manchester University. The opinions I present here are entirely my own.

Putting aside the question of how good a scientist I am; I can tell you one thing for certain: I’m an incredibly bad at writing successful grant applications! Really bad, awful, abysmal. I wrote about 8 over my relatively short period as a grant writer and they all failed (and not even by a small margin). I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Exactly what grant applications mean varies from subject to subject, but in my field: experimental laboratory-scale soft matter physics it’s important: in order to do research you need people and equipment. Typically grant applications are written to get 2-3 years of postdoctoral research assistant, or a PhD student and some equipment. Your department will rate itself on the grant funding it obtains, and you on your contribution to that figure. You will definitely feel that winning grants is something you have to do to succeed in your job. You can eke out an existence without grants, funding students from other sources and helping colleagues with successful grant applications, throwing yourself into teaching but it doesn’t feel like the way you’re supposed to do it.

I find it difficult to put into words how much I loathed the whole grant application process. A grant application requires you to describe the research you’re going to do over the next few years, and how the results will be world-class. The average success rate is about 20% (disputed) in the field in which I was applying. Once written the grant applications are sent to reviewers – actually that means someone just like you – it’s peer review. Reviewers know full well that if they rate an application “excellent” as opposed to “outstanding” in any one of several areas they are damning the application to failure. Reviews go forward to a panel who plough through huge numbers of these things (about 5 times as many as they are going to fund), then rank them. Funding is given to those at the top of the list, working down until the available cash is exhausted. There are serious questions as to whether we can rank schools accurately, here we try to do it for world-class research. It’s a grim process for all involved.

It’s in this context that the new impact statements are introduced, potentially these contribute 25% to the grant decision. As an grant application writer I need this like I need another hole in the head! Writing the science part of the grant application is a work of pure fiction (I think it might have helped if I’d appreciated that when I was doing it), writing the impact statement: “The demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy” is going beyond that. This is forward looking, you’re being asked to quantify the future economic value of that bit of world-class research you’re going to do.

The problem is that university science can take a long time to trickle out, in a case I highlighted yesterday in what is a pretty applied area, research was having a very direct, specific impact 40 years after it was done. Prior to my grant seeking days my work as a PhD student, postdoc and ADR has been funded, at least in part by three separate companies – little word of the economic impact has made it back to me from these companies.

So this brings me to some concrete points:
Point 1: For many areas of research societal, economic impacts are diffuse and long term, and actually the academic proposing the research is not in the best position to determine those impacts. As an industrial researcher I’ve written business cases for doing external research, this is a very revealing exercise which I know I couldn’t have done as an academic because I simply wouldn’t have had the required information to hand. Impact statements should not be required on a “one per application” basis, they should be for whole subject fields and written in consultation with people with actual data on the economic and societal impacts.

Moving on to a second point, Lord Drayson very generously praised scientists in Britain for the quality of the science they do, but said the problem was in how this expertise is translated into wider society:
Point 2: Impact statements are purely about scientists, applying for grants in universities. The onus seems to be on scientists to fix a problem which has two sides. What are we doing about how society and industry interact with science?

In the end impact is about communication, it’s about understanding the preconceptions that other people bring to the party and addressing these preconceptions in the way you communicate. Although I described myself as a research scientist, I’m actually a science communicator in and industrial environment.

This whole blog is really about communicating what it’s like to be a scientist, how it feels, the little details of the tribe. The people I follow on twitter are all very clever, they do lots of different things and from a combination of tweets and blogs you learn about their lives. This is my contribution to that discussion, it’s a societal impact.

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