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Bitchslap for gov profitable-science plans

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British boffins have cast doubt on government plans to reorient the nation's scientific and technical research so as to benefit the economy. They say that the connection between research and economic impact is poorly understood, and suggest that the government resists the temptation to meddle until it knows what it's doing.

The arguments come in a report (pdf) by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), a pressure group which tries to keep sci/tech high on the UK political agenda. According to the report, funding for scientific research is actually up somewhat in recent times - but the success rate of grant applications has plunged.

Despite increased funds available, between 2003 and 2008 the success rate of grant applications halved from about 40 per cent to about 20 per cent. This cannot apparently be wholly explained by higher numbers of applicants, more expensive grants, or the move to paying the full economic costs of grants. The decline in success rates is demoralising and means that it is hard to find funding for high-risk research.

The boffinry analysts go on to point out that many scientists and researchers believe that there is hostility towards funding of basic or "blue-sky" research. Curiously, however, according to government records the proportion of such research has actually gone up.

Either the data are misleading, or researchers perceive threats to responsive and basic research that are simply not there. In any case, interviews with scientists suggest that, to some extent, the terminology they use to describe their work changes more than the projects themselves. Calling research basic can guard against demands for early results, but re-branding it to highlight any future potential for impact, can help secure funding.

In other words, nobody really knows whether funding is shifting away from pure science and into money-spinning tech, as government biznovation/defence minister Lord Drayson has lately suggested it should. However, the CaSE analysts warn that the perception of such a shift could be as damaging as the reality.

They argue that it's already hard enough to attract bright students into science/tech/engineering/maths (STEM) subjects. If the kids see nothing ahead but a lifetime of dull but worthy toil producing possibly profitable new kinds of geriatric medicines, low-energy lightbulbs, ecologically friendly paint etc, they may not be willing to accept the massively higher student workload required to qualify in STEM subjects. Instead they will be likely to drift into parasitical, useless fields such as rap music, law, financial services or journalism. Thus it's vital to keep funding glamorous sexy research involving colossal atomsmashers, space telescopes, interplanetary probes and suchlike.

Just when the numbers taking STEM are showing signs of improving, students must not be put off because they see little support for their area of interest. Many students are particularly excited by space and particle physics, areas perceived to be at threat by current spending plans.

Even if it were possible to predict the research areas that would yield the greatest short-term economic return, reducing funding in other areas could bring significant long-term scientific and economic risk.

In essence, the boffinry advocates argue, it would be foolish for the government to start throwing its weight about in the sci/tech field as nobody really knows how to direct research funds in such a way as to maximise economic benefit anyway. Initiatives such as those suggested by Lord Drayson would be as likely to do harm as good.

"The UK government should build the evidence base necessary to inform its thinking on the impacts of the research base," concludes the report. "Government policy options for increasing impact should be better articulated." ®

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