I gave a presentation on RCUK Strategy to the Winter meeting of the Heads of University Biological Science departments last week. Here are the slides, together with audio of my talk (direct link):

RCUK Strategy

View another webinar from steven_hill

Sources

Slide 5: SET statistics 2011
Slide 6, 24: Royal Society, The Scientific Century 2010
Slide 7: Spending review 2010 [pdf]
Slide 8: Allocation of science and research funding 2010 [pdf]
Slides 14-19, 25: BIS/Elsevier, Performance of the UK research base 2011;  Thompson-Reuters, Global Research Report UK 2011
Slide 26: Innovation Union Scoreboard 2010
Slide 27: Science, Technology and Industry Scorecard – Innovation and knowledge flows
Slide 28: OECD 2011, Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard – Public/private cross-funding of research
Slide 30: RCUK data principles
Slide 32: RCUK Concordat on Public Engagement
Slide 35: Times Higher Education
Slide 36: RCUK demand management principles
Slide 37: ESRC consultation responses
Slide 38: Nature

BIS published their annual ‘SET statistics’ last week, which provide a wealth of information on the UK’s investment in science, engineering and technology. The Campaign for Science and Engineering have published their take on the numbers. For me, one of the interesting aspects of the dataset is the reasonably long time series it provides, giving insights into long term trends. I compiled the following graph from the data to show how the general pattern of research investment has varied over time:

 The investment levels are the inflation corrected figures, converted to 2009/10 prices. Some striking features of the patterns of investment are:

  • In real terms, the investment in 2009/10 is equivalent to that of 1986/87. Total levels of investment have been reasonably constant in recent years.
  • The changing pattern of investment has been towards increasing expenditure by the Research Councils and the Higher Education Funding Councils, largely at the expense of spending on defence. Spending by the civil departments has been steady and has increased slightly in recent years.
  • Defence spending is more volatile than other areas with bigger year-on-year fluctuations.

I would be interested in your views on the statistics, so please comment.

No one can spend very long learning about life science without hearing about HeLa cells, but the story behind this cell line – where the cells came from, why they behave the way they do, and even why they have been so useful scientifically and medically – is more of a mystery. It is this story which Rebecca Skloot (@RebeccaSkloot on twitter) tells in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

I approached this book with high expectations, given the praise and awards it has received. And on one level I was not disappointed. The human story of Henrietta Lacks and her family is compellingly told and the fortunes of Henrietta’s immortal cells are drawn into sharp contrast with those of Henrietta herself and her descendents. The book also contains some fascinating portraits of the scientists and clinicians involved in the story. It would have been very easy to portray these (mostly) men in a negative light but Skloot manages to strike a balance between their laudable motives, the influence of business and an often amazing lack of concern for the donor of the cells and her family. The story of the scientists is a vignette of the complex motives that underpin research, a case study to disprove the idea that research is a cold, objective activity carried out in isolation from the pressures of the world.

I also think Skloot deals very effectively with many of the complex ethical issues surrounding the use of human subjects and tissues. The lack of appropriate regulatory safeguards as the new research into human cell lines developed is striking, especially given the tight restrictions on using human tissue and the requirements for consent that now operate. On one level this is shocking but also reflects the challenges of ensuring that regulation keeps pace with technological developments. And I couldn’t help but have slightly mixed feelings on this point. Would the research have progressed so quickly and effectively had there been a comprehensive and effective regulatory system in place? Of course we can never know, but given the apparently unique properties of Henrietta Lack’s cells, had she or her family refused consent many of the benefits that came from the research would have arrived much more slowly. These are complex ethical questions.

There is much to enjoy in this thought-provoking and well written book. But I can’t help thinking there is also a missed opportunity. I was disappointed not to learn more about the science of HeLa cells. What is special about them? How have they been used in research? What are they telling us about how non-cancerous cells divide and grow? Issues like these are not explored in any detail: for me the book over-emphasises the human story, interesting and compelling as it is, without providing enough of the science. This is just a personal preference, though, and I would certainly encourage anyone who is interested in the relationship between research and society to read this book.

Nature has recently published a fascinating article (paywall) developing the argument that theoretical work in mathematics that has no apparent application can prove to be really useful in the future. These quotes summarise the argument:

The mathematician develops topics that no one else can see any point in pursuing, or pushes ideas far into the abstract, well beyond where others would stop.

There is no way to guarantee in advance what pure mathematics will later find application. We can only let the process of curiosity and abstraction take place, let mathematicians obsessively take results to their logical extremes, leaving relevance far behind, and wait to see which topics turn out to be extremely useful. If not, when the challenges of the future arrive, we won’t have the right piece of seemingly pointless mathematics to hand.

These points are then illustrated with seven examples where advances in mathematics precede, sometimes by centuries, their use in new innovations or products. One of the examples explains that the mathematics of quaternions, which were first described in the nineteenth century, turns out to be really useful in computer game programming.

The examples provide evidence that abstract developments can prove useful, but I was left with a question. If the new understanding hadn’t happened first, would the application itself have driven the new mathematics? This is a hypothetical question, and there is no doubt that having the maths in place already will have speeded up the application. In order to get a better picture, though, it would be interesting to know how easy it is to find examples where new advances in maths have been catalysed because of a pressing need to solve a practical problem. If can think of examples like this please add them to the comments.

 

It was recently announced that the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation has been renamed the Francis Crick Institute. While the reduction in the alphabet soup of UK research policy is to be applauded, I find the obsession with naming scientific institutes and facilities after famous individuals problematic for science and its relationship with society. It is part of a wider personality cult in science, that is manifest by the emphasis that is given to personal awards like fellowships of the major academies or big international prizes, of which the Nobel prize is probably the best known.

I think that the focus on individuals raises a number of problems:

  • It suggests that advances in science are dependent on the particular insight of special individuals, but the history of science shows that the cultural context within which scientists operate is at least as influential as individual genius. It is the rule, rather than the exception, that new ideas emerge in parallel in multiple places, and the name we associate with discoveries often reflects accidents of history or aptitudes for self-publicity, rather than some unique contribution.
  • The focus on the individual ignores the importance of teams. Almost any major scientific advance is now dependent on a team effort, and while every effective team needs a leader, to single out individuals misses the point and devalues the wider contributions. And even beyond the research team, science progresses through the development of a body of evidence to which many researchers contribute. This is equally relevant to the current focus on delivering impact from research, as pointed out recently by Jack Stilgoe and Alice Bell: impact comes from people and the interactions between them, rather than from journals article or individuals.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the focus on individuals leads to a perception outside of the research community that there are some special characteristics that are needed to be a successful scientist, and can reinforce stereotypes about age, gender or social background. If we want to attract young people into science focusing on the fact that scientific research is an exciting career that is open to many would seem a better strategy than building a cult of ‘special’ individuals.

 

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