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« Ain't no science at the RSE | Main | Dellers on Reason »

Community science

I chanced upon this interesting letter from Michael Singer, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh, in which he takes Science Minister David Willetts to task for the state of the EPSRC - the funding council for the physical sciences.

His specific gripe is that the direction of funding is decided by the bureaucrats without reference to scientists

EPSRC has declared that it is now in the business of ‘sponsoring’ rather than ‘funding’ research. This means that EPSRC will try to pick winners on its own, without adequate advice from the community. This process has already begun. Applicants for programme grants (which are a favoured mechanism for o ffering relatively large chunks of funding for a substantial project over a period of up to 6 years) have first to submit an outline proposal to EPSRC. The outline is assessed and, if satisfactory, EPSRC will invite the applicant to develop a full proposal. In my experience, at the outline stage, EPSRC seeks no external opinion about the quality of the science. The discussion with EPSRC is entirely about such things as management, risks, and leadership.

I wonder if something like this goes on at NERC - the body that funds environmental science. The problem with state funded science is that you tend to have to hand control of a great deal of money to somebody. Do we want money directed by politicians (who will spend to maximise their chances of reelection) or by bureaucrats (who will spend it as wastefully as possible in order to encourage more funding to come their way) or by scientists (who will try to shut out dissenting views).

Perhaps Koutsoyiannis's idea of allocation by lot is not so daft after all.

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Reader Comments (17)

Is a list of recipients and subjects FOI'able?

Sep 29, 2011 at 7:47 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charley

There's a site called Grants on the Web where you can get details of awards. But it's the ones rejected that are probably more interesting.

Sep 29, 2011 at 8:06 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

A small correction: Michael Singer isn't retired. He just isn't head of school any more.

Sep 29, 2011 at 8:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterBurt Totaro

Similar to the EPA getting all their scientific endangerment 'evidence' from the IPCC.
This has, however, backfired wonderfully thanks to Inhofe's challenge !

As IPCC's 'scientists' all seem to be Greenpeace/WWF activists this would seem to be a reasonable

Sep 29, 2011 at 8:48 AM | Unregistered Commenterjazznick

Since it is the taxpayers' money, I don't see anything seriously wrong with the taxpayers' elected representatives deciding how it should be spent; with, of course, the usual conditions that the process should be made public, and poor performers should be subject to removal at the next election.

Sep 29, 2011 at 10:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterJon Jermey

My geochemistry PhD was part-funded by NERC, as were most goelogy PhD studentships.

Looks like we'd struggle to get funding for any of our research projects now, if you look at the list of research themes currently supported.

Sep 29, 2011 at 11:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterIan B

I'm depressed, I've just been on WUWT and people are debating a sh*itty little Gore video as though it was coverage of some kind of empirical experiment. How low and dumb can scepticism go? It's bloody video aimed at showing a POV - get over it! BTW, BIsh, just bought HSI,and received from Amazon and am looking forward to reading it as soon as Gixxergirl has finished.

Sep 29, 2011 at 12:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterGixxerboy

It's not just the EPSRC - you'll find the same theme with most of them.

Start with the RC group homepage:

Go through to this (for example)
"Climate change and social policy: Rethinking the political economy of the welfare state"

"Will current climate change mitigation policies compete fiscally with the welfare state? We cost all such policies expressed through taxation, government spending and mandated spending by energy suppliers. We find that such spending is tiny and that the share of green taxes will fall. There is no evidence of fiscal competition between the welfare state and the environmental state. But mandated energy markets impinge on lower income households, raising demands on traditional social policies."


Is "Mandated energy markets" a euphamism for "stealth-taxs and renewable energy feed-in tariff surcharges"?

Sep 29, 2011 at 2:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterKeith MacDonald

The problem with state funded science is that you tend to have to hand control of a great deal of money to somebody. Do we want money directed by politicians (who will spend to maximise their chances of reelection) or by bureaucrats (who will spend it as wastefully as possible in order to encourage more funding to come their way) or by scientists (who will try to shut out dissenting views). Perhaps Koutsoyiannis's idea of allocation by lot is not so daft after all.
Following [the UEA's] Lord Acton's ancestor, the first Baron Acton, it seems a simpler way to reduce the tendency to corruption, would be to eliminate the "great deal of money" which is the source of the problem.

Sep 29, 2011 at 2:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterHaroldW

"allocation by lot"

Rather like arranged marriages, which I understand work a lot better than you might suppose.

At least the distribution should be fair, in the end...

Sep 29, 2011 at 3:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

deciding how it should be spent

I know for a fact that very promising research avenues for the betterment and maybe even cure of some "social illnesses" are and have been actively discouraged by a succession of governments, as those cures run against accepted ideology. So yes, there is something wrong in deciding science by bureaucracy.

Following Pareto, I'd allocate 20% of public research money by lot. Anybody should be allowed to apply for however fancy the hypothesis, as long as they can justify the expenses at the end.

Sep 29, 2011 at 3:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterMaurizio Morabito

If you turn the 'equation' around, think how much the government could allocate to bona fide researchers, if they dropped anything remotely to do with AGW 'research' - some of which read like a 10th grade, school project.

I clearly remember a commenter on a realist blog thread saying, if you attach the words man-made GW to a proposed thesis or research subject, that you wish to investigate and require funding - AGW virtually guarantees .gov money.

As the Bish' has hinted, of most interest is in, the people, research projects - the one's who were turned down - now that would be interesting.

Sep 29, 2011 at 5:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan

Why not just stop spending any public money on research? Why is it government's job to pay for research? Almost all of what has paid off comes from venture capitalists or large corporations. The transistor was invented in Bell Laboratories. Almost all new drugs are the work of venture capitalist investments. Do we really need CERN? Albert Einstein did his best work sitting in a Zurich tram on his way to work at zero cost -- above the cost of his fare that is.

Sep 29, 2011 at 8:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra

NERC, The Natural Environment Research Council, basically controls the research funding of All the earth sciences, not just the environment. It used to predominantly fund pure geological research, oceanography, geophysics and so on, without the politicised environmental genuflection. I suppose they have, of neccessity, had to adapt to the political climate and so respond to focus funding into the politicians climate/sustainability dogma. It is reflected in the nominees of their council, here:

Dominated by the on board climate change/sustainability/species biodiversity etc. individuals, some all too familiar. I dont understand an NGO rep on it though, (Ms Rebecca Willis)

But, surprisingly, and I must admit I didn't expect this, there still remains funding for pure research skimming through these archives:

There is one council member who I regard as a heavyweight scientist who used to evaluate new data, such as that sent back from the Jason Mission, with excitement and wonder, and without politically correct overtones, such as this:

'The solar wind, because it is an extended ionized gas of very high electrical conductivity, drags some magnetic flux out of the Sun, thereby filling the heliosphere with the weak interplanetary magnetic field 7, 24. Magnetic reconnection - the merging of oppositely-directed magnetic fields such that they become connected to each other - between the interplanetary field and the Earth's magnetic field, allows energy from the solar wind to enter the near-Earth environment. The Sun's properties, such as its luminosity, are related to its magnetic field, though the connections are as yet not well understood 15, 16. Moreover, changes in the heliospheric magnetic field have been linked with changes in total cloud cover over the Earth, which may influence global climate change 17. Here we report that the measurements of the near-Earth interplanetary magnetic field reveal that the total magnetic field leaving the sun has risen by a factor 1.4 since 1964. Using surrogate interplanetary measurements, we find that the rise since 1901 is by a factor of 2.3. This change may be related to chaotic changes in the dynamo that generates the solar magnetic field. We do not yet know quantitatively how such changes will influence the global environment.'

Budgets, funding, politics, whatever, but Mike Lockwood's rebuttal of Svensmark, I think, was not his finest hour.

Still involved in CERN, I believe, and if anyone could be a paradigm changer with the credo of government and RS, it is him.

Sep 29, 2011 at 9:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

In fact a group of prominent mathematicians, including the current "TV mathematician" Marcus de Sautoy, Bob May, and your correspondent above Burt Totaro, recently wrote a letter to the Prime Minister complaining about the EPSRC decision to stop funding postdoctoral research fellowships in mathematics.

More generally, EPSRC appears to be moving away from supporting blue skies, investigator-proposed research projects, and towards research in particular specified areas - which raises the question of who decides what these areas are.

Sep 29, 2011 at 10:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterPaulM

I meant Ulysses Mission, not Jason.

Sep 29, 2011 at 10:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

Bishop Hill writes:

The problem with state funded science is that you tend to have to hand control of a great deal of money to somebody. Do we want money directed by politicians (who will spend to maximise their chances of reelection) or by bureaucrats (who will spend it as wastefully as possible in order to encourage more funding to come their way) or by scientists (who will try to shut out dissenting views).

I would welcome a serious discussion of this point, but I think that this formulation is FAR too schematic and abstract. Your claim here applies indiscriminately to all science, not just climate science. Are you saying that all government funded science is basically corrupt? Are you saying that it is all to be mistrusted equally alongside climate science?

I suspect not. I would argue that one clue is the role that climate science has attained in political debate. I think it is true that science, like all human organizations, is full of petty personal motivations. But I don't think that in say genomics or semiconductor physics there is an identifiable tendency to 'shut out dissenting views' by scientists of the sort complained about on this blog.

Given that this is so, I do not believe that government funding inevitably leads to scientists trying to 'shut out dissenting views'. I therefore do not believe that it would resolve the problem simply to cut off government funding.

Also, what is the alternative? If you believe that funding is inevitably corrupting then science becomes impossible.

I don't believe that industry science is all to be mistrusted. But I do know that studies from pharma companies need to be scrutinized at least as well as other science to keep them honest. Without linking skeptics in general to the tobacco companies, I think the example of smoking is one that shows in a general way that private companies are not always honest in their presentation and sponsoring of science.

The other alternative is charities. But these can easily develop an ideological agenda. Would we know more about the climate if all research was funded by either Friends of the Earth or by the American Enterprise Institute?

Even self funded scientists like Charles Darwin would have personal interests.

It seems to me that the theory that what scientists say is determined by their paymasters is the offspring of crude marxism and crude free market thinking. I don't think it helps us understand what is going on. The reality, I argue, is that as a set of social arrangements developed over the past 350 years science has found a path towards objectivity. This is not perfect, but it does allow the development of knowledge that is relatively independent of immediate social interests. To argue that this is finished and that science can no longer play this role seems to me to take the argument about the corruption of science a step too far.

(There are big problems with government funding of science generally. As an incremental step I would suggest putting more decisions in the hands of scientists rather than politicians or bureaucrats. John P. A. Ioannidis (notable for scrutinizing the reliability of the medical literature) has a piece in this week's Nature (paywalled I'm afraid) on streamlining funding decisions which includes some discussion of lotteries and across the board equal funding: )

Oct 1, 2011 at 9:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterJK

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