Fixing the science research $$ hole

We have a challenging problem in Australia at present, one that is likely common internationally. It is that there isn’t enough government research funding to go around. The problem is multifaceted but can be roughly rounded down into two sides of a coin:

  1. Science is becoming more expensive to do, there are more people doing it, and the intense competition combined with technological gains is driving greater productivity. This entails a higher cost usage rate per scientist than before.
  2. Conservative governments are ideologically focused on cutting government spending, and research funding can often be an easy target.

In Australia, our recent penchant for fellowship schemes brings us to a particularly dangerous crunch — fellowships are appealing to governments as they can be sold to the public as ‘creating jobs’ (something all politicians love) over other forms of research funding, and they are appealing to universities, as they enable them to buy a jump in research metrics, which improve their positions in global rankings, reputation, etc. But, they also bring the requirement for a longer term lift in project funding, because doing science costs money beyond just a fellow’s salary, and those fellows are (ideally, hopefully) likely to stick around  in traditional tenured academic positions beyond their fellowship, otherwise there’d be little point to a fellowship scheme in the first place! The sad fact is that for a politician, project funding ranks pretty low as a priority behind fellowships (= jobs, jobs, jobs) and infrastructure (= big new shiny things to be photographed in front of, ideally in a fluoro vest and a hardhat for the modern politician). This ultimately means that the commensurate cash investment needed to make a sustainable research system in terms of project funding isn’t easily achieved.

And this is where the problem has arisen here. The lift in Australian project funding hasn’t been substantive enough, and this is now causing a funding crunch that threatens the viability of research programs across all areas. It also risks seeing the fellows that the government invested in bringing here flee offshore, turning those earlier investments in fellowships into a waste. Some might argue: ‘well look at the stats, this hasn’t affected success rates at ARC has it’. No, but that depends how you want to define ‘success rate’. The ratio of grants funded to grants submitted hasn’t fallen, sure, but the ratio of funds allocated to funds requested for those that do get funding has dropped sharply — in a sense, the falling project funding is just well hidden by the system by distracting with another metric.

I was in a ‘town hall’ meeting my school had with our Dean last week, and in the Q&A at the end, raised this question: “Given the recent investment by government in fellows and the university in ‘strategic hires’, and the stagnating government project funding, there is likely a big funding crunch coming. Does the university have plans for how to ride this storm?” It was admittedly a damn tough question (one I didn’t expect an answer to), and in some ways I’m glad the Dean threw the question back at me, because I had no immediate answer for it either. What it did do was help to reinforce a largely rhetorical question aimed at getting folks to think a lot more about this problem, because we all (not just university senior management) really need to start working out how we’re going to deal with it.

The easy answer to the question above is that we should keep advocating for increases in government funding for science (and we should), but what if we can’t make the politicians give it to us, then what do we do? What are going to be our creative solutions to keeping scientific research sustainable in spite of governments that are ever more fiscally conservative, who are empowered by voters that are ever more disconnected from what scientists actually do and produce, and contain shrinking numbers of properly scientifically engaged and technically educated politicians?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit of late (hence my question in the first place), and avoiding obvious mechanisms like fee deregulation, here are a few ideas, some a little on the edge, that might kick off some wider public discussion.

Australian Science Fund: The one thing we are missing in Australia is a fund whereby the public at large can freely contribute towards wide-spread non-targeted basic scientific research. The Australian Research Council, which supports this basic purpose at present, is a purely governmental body (n.b., it should remain and it’s funding be increased). I can’t personally ‘donate’ to the ARC and they don’t seek donations either. Beyond the ARC there is really nothing similar of a charitable nature in Australia… sure, there are some fantastic charities devoted to particular causes, mostly in the medical sector, but what if, as a donor, I want to contribute to basic nanomaterials research or astrophysics or the underpinning theory of non-Abelian anyons in ultra-high mobility 2D systems? One can also donate directly to universities, but these donations often go towards buildings and scholarships and infrastructure rather than the $/c of doing actual hands-on research group science (happy to be corrected if I’m wrong about this, I don’t have budget figures…).

One possibility would be to have a shadow fund to the ARC, administered by an organisation like the Australian Academy of Science, that can take public donations and use those for a grant scheme somewhat similar to the ARC Discovery program. To maximise its benefit, this fund should not be used to ‘supplement’ anything already funded by the ARC (otherwise it just enables the bad behaviour of governments in cutting publicly funded science research) or anything already funded by some other charitable body. It can’t be used for infrastructure or fellowships (except perhaps at ECR level), it is purely there to fill the gap in project funds that get science done. The ideal case for it would be as a ‘starter scheme’, which funds small, new, short term projects towards becoming funded by other mechanisms. Or to help researchers who have excellent ideas and research track-records, but have been near misses with other funding agencies, to get their projects enough critical mass to get bigger pots of money. As such, it would be something like the old ARC small grants scheme from the late 90s.

One clever way to fund this, and potentially other special projects, would be to make a small change to the income tax form that enables tax payers to pre-allocate some percentage of their tax return towards special initiatives like this. This is successfully implemented in the Oregon state tax system in the US (see here, page 10); the only difficulty would be the competition from a sea of other initiatives clamouring for access to such a revenue stream (e.g., the operation sovereign borders fund 🙂 ). Otherwise, it would need to run like any other charitable organization. This could be aided through tricks similar to those used by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation in the U.S. One of them is to divert some small portion of the fund towards grants to aid public understanding of science and technology — the Alfred P. Sloan foundation supports excellent media programs such as Radiolab (which I’m a huge fan of). These in turn help raise donations back to the Foundation itself, which actually invests the lion’s share of its income into scientific research grants. Organizations such as Questacon and the Sydney Observatory could also be supported by, and in return help support, a fund like this.

A key aspect is that this would have to be a single organization with enough size and solid backing to have critical mass in a country as small as Australia. Ten small versions of this, each competing against the other, would probably be a total flop — it needs the backing of a key scientific body like one of the Academies to probably be properly successful.

Fixing the publishing scam: It is hard to think of modern scientific publishing as anything other than a scam run by private publishing companies. Let’s put it bluntly in this way: Governments fund scientists to do research, those researchers then *must* as part of the academic system, give their results, for free, to scientific publishers. Those publishers then lock those results behind a paywall and charge the government, via university libraries, for access to those results they got for free in the first place. In other words, they make a fortune by taking the product of free labour from authors, free labour from referees and free labour from editors, all of whom are paid by the government, add a bit of cheap digital processing, and then sell the product back to those governments at completely disproportionate (please read as rip-off) prices.

In the old days, this was a sensible deal; printing presses and mail distribution systems were expensive, and having publishers handle that was just smart outsourcing. In the modern era it is a crazy Faustian bargain that basically results in massive profit margins for academic publishers (as high as 40%!), who simply hoover up government science funding internationally in a two-dip process. Aussie taxpayers should be particularly outraged, as much of this cash goes directly off-shore, i.e., it doesn’t even support Australian publishing houses, which have largely been killed by the impact factor wars over the past decade.

The remarkable thing here is that we don’t actually *need* the journals any more, really, everything we want to do in publishing can be achieved by sites such as and the establishment of mechanisms to add peer review to that process, e.g., via mechanisms like the RRR index from my last post implemented by funding agencies or novel means like publons with some added carrot and stick by funding agencies. The system just exists because it always has and there’s resistance to change, partly as scientists are largely a conservative bunch, and partly as the system has become the key weapon in the competitive ‘academic arms race’ for science funding — a stupendous number of perfectly acceptable papers get rejected from journals every day, not because they’re complete crackpot nonsense or even because of real technical issues, but because they aren’t deemed worthy of the kudos that publication in that particular journal would provide the authors in their quest for career advancement (the financial waste in this is enormous, but I’ll save it for another post).

If we want to keep the luxury of journals as they exist now,  we should at the very least stop giving the publishers of them our material and labour for free. The funding agencies should be demanding to get a significant cut of that 40% profit margin to reinvest in further research (and the authors should get a cut too — subject of another future post here).

A change like this can only happen by concerted action by a consortium of the world’s key funding agencies and universities though, because by their implicit acceptance of the arms race paradigm that  ‘a paper in Nature is worth 50 in the International Journal of Blah’, aided by endorsing monstrosities like the Nature Publishing Index, they just help perpetuate the same journal system that ruthlessly exploits them. In the end, putting a stop to the exploitation of publicly funded research by publishers is in the best interests of funding agencies and universities too — as it would not only provide funds to reinvest in research, it could also end the wasted productivity inherent in modern scientific publishing.

Fixing up IP in Australia: One story that few in Australia will have missed in recent years is the CSIRO’s patent claims regarding wi-fi technology, some of which has gone to starting a whole new research grant scheme called the Science and Industry Endowment Fund (SIEF). This was a great outcome in my opinion, innovation should help fund innovation, but to the best of my knowledge, there are no formal mechanisms for making this happen in the ARC system. Most Australian university IP rules divide any profits at something like 1/3 to the creators (staff and students), 1/3 to the university (who may or may not plough that back into research) and 1/3 to the University’s ‘innovation organisation’ (if they have one). Does any of this go directly back to the funding agencies like the ARC that put this money up in the first place? No. This also really needs to change, for similar reasons to the publishing exploitation argument above. There should be more funds like SIEF, and the government needs to take a more active role in making this happen as a return on initial funding investments, particularly on schemes like Linkage.

MOOCvertising: This is another avenue that would more be a revenue stream for universities. But one could argue that, since the real benefit of having more top researchers doing more expensive cutting edge science largely falls on them by helping their reputation and rankings, they also have some responsibility to directly fund that research. The Massively Open Online Course or MOOC is becoming a massive industry in higher education now, it brings access to markets outside the traditional ‘students attending lectures on campus’ market, and brings very significant prospects for attracting advertising revenue. Some of this could be used to fund the MOOCs themselves, some used to fund research. It’s a pretty obvious revenue stream, so I won’t say more, but one I think that hasn’t been well tapped yet.

The Church of Science: A bizarre twist on the MOOC perhaps (this wouldn’t be true Fear and Loathing without the odd off the wall suggestion), but perhaps science needs to start its own ‘church’. Now before you abandon me to head to Facebook, thinking I’ve gone batshit crazy, hear me out… What’s the charm in MOOCs? With the good ones it’s that people get to learn some science or engineering or medicine or whatever captures their interest, for free, to the interest level that they like, in a non-intimidating environment that’s free of horrible catches like exams or assessment tasks or turning up to a campus for 12 weeks. This charm extends beyond MOOCs even — little tidbits of science on YouTube attract massive public interest, particularly if they are well explained and have cool stories to them. We should not underestimate how interested in science much of the general public can be, but we also should not underestimate how easy it is to intimidate them or have them shy away from it based on insecurities (the ‘I was never very good at science in school’ problem) — if we’re going to do this, we need to do it well in a non-technical way.

In some instances the public are even engaged enough that they will turn up to open lectures, be they formal series like the Aspen Center for Physics runs or much more informal ‘science over beers’ events like Nerd Nite. I did a Nerd Nite last December and was particularly proud that they were raising money for Youth off the Streets that night, but wouldn’t it be great if we could also be raising money for research as well, say for something like an Australian Science Fund, similar to the one proposed above.

Now let’s think about churches for a second. Why do people go? A sense of community? A desire to find some way to rationalise the world they live in? Why can’t science provide this too if we can work out how to provide it in a manner that really does engage and entertain well? There are recent reports that much of the public are doubtful about key scientific facts that we scientists all take for granted, how can we ever hope to change this unless we’re talking to the public about these key ideas as much as the preachers and pastors get to talk to the public about mad ideas like creationism? Would this change if we had ‘congregations’ that came to a hall each week to hear clear explanations about things like the big bang, evolution, climate change, etc. without it being a traditional lecture course model? People donate to theology and evangelism, why wouldn’t they also donate to research and outreach in the same way?

People might write the sorts of revenues that could come in from this off as chump change, but bear with me a moment, let’s dream big. Let’s consider your average, boring university lecture to be like your neighbourhood catholic church. Boring guy gets up and prattles on once a week, makes some money — nothing special but it rakes in the money to keep churches/universities running. In some senses fun, compelling outreach activities in the ilk of Nerd nite are like little evangelistic churches — engaged audience who attend somewhat religiously and of their own free will (not by an educational system that expects them to go, like the traditional university model does), and willing to stump up cash for the experience. This is cool, but what we then need is Hillsong magnitude. Hillsong more or less started out as the Jesus version of Nerd nite, but with some proper management and careful thought on how to engage and entertain as much as they preach, they are now a large international company with annual revenues on the order of $60-70M (if you don’t believe me, see here) and the capacity to divert at least 10-20% of that to ‘benevolent causes’ beyond operating costs.

Getting back to public engagement: Doing a Hillsong version of science would be a serious challenge, probably well beyond one or even a handful of outreach-talented people, but it shows the true power of public engagement, which is something that the scientific community could do far better than it does now. Strangely enough though, if anything, such engagement is poorly incentivised (some would actually even say disincentivised) at present by the academic system. As well highlighted by Jason Ensor’s article “University metrics keep academics in their ivory towers” on the Conversation yesterday, the academic system currently rewards people mostly for producing ‘outputs’ that are completely meaningless beyond the person who made them, even to academics in slightly separated topics of the same field, let alone, heaven forbid, the general public. The universities and funding agencies bow and scrape for the folks producing strings of deeply technical Nature and Science papers, giving them their top professorships and special salary packages, but have you ever tried giving one of those Nature or Science articles to your mum, or the bloke down the local pub? They’re meaningless gobbledigook, and so its no surprise at all that the public don’t feel compelled to defend us and the funding that enables us to do what we do.

Currently, the universities are backing and rewarding the wrong people if we want to keep our public funding from government from decreasing, and convince people to donate beyond what they already do with their taxes towards scientific research. I’d be gradually taking some of these special professorships back from the ‘human publishing machines’ that have them now, and devoting up to half of them instead towards the people who are best at engaging the public and engaging the students to have an active interest in science. We need better mechanisms to support outreach and public education and engagement at universities, because otherwise our funds are going to dry up. As an example (chosen as it pops easily to mind not because it’s specific or targeted), somewhere like Sydney University shouldn’t have a half dozen Federation or Laureate Research Fellows and only one Julius Sumner Miller (outreach) Fellow in one department, the ratio should probably be closer to 50:50 if we really want the public to see value in science. To some extent this means coming up with ways to measure value outside the traditional research track, which is hard, because just counting Nature papers (or papers in general) doesn’t really do it. If anything, one wonders if publishing and bringing in grants is so well regarded by universities simply because it is just so easy to quantify and metricise and build league tables out of!

Universities and even bodies like the Academies need to become more engaged in managing the public perceptions of science too. We need to use the media better, we need to even perhaps encourage people to write fewer papers but make sure that each of those papers have more meaning, impact and significance to the public. Scientists need to get out there, show they are real people with real lives and real interests, which is really hard when you’re worked to death in the academic arms race we currently have. Twitter has been a great platform for this, particularly accounts like @realscientists. But there needs to be stronger support for this, from universities and academic bodies, not just academics who are interested enough to give up what spare time they can scrape together to do it.

Political engagement: Finally, the one last thing we need is stronger political engagement by scientists in Australia — If the system doesn’t work for you, get into the system and change it from the inside. While events like Science meets Parliament have some role to play in this, what we really need is to put more scientists into actual positions in government departments and ultimately, into public office. To put it bluntly, we need more Stephen Chu’s in this country. The one impediment to this is the current nature of the academic system whereby once you leave, it’s more or less impossible to come back in (except for Stephen Chu, who has the great fortune of a Nobel prize to his name 😉 ). This is again because of the arms race system of academia whereby the only path to survival is to continuously generate high impact papers, especially in Nature journals, external funding and maintain an ever growing and high h-index. We really need to get a shift towards success being more about a diversity of achievement be it research, teaching, outreach, policy or even some mix of all if one can somehow pull it all off. We really need a system where taking a few years out to contribute to society in some other way — be it by being an advocate for science in politics or even just having a family(!) — isn’t a very likely death sentence to your academic career. If we don’t change our direct engagement in politics, then we have no legitimacy in complaints about the political system not caring enough about us, it’s really that simple.

As a last point, we could also do a much better job at preparing some of our graduates for taking their scientific training into the political sphere — there are mechanisms for this in the US, I’m not aware of any here and we need them (feel free to inform me).

Epilogue: I think I might stop here, lest I write ‘War and Peace’, but basically, while there are some good answers to how we might fix the $$ hole, none of them are even remotely easy. They are going to require some coordinated, structured and persistent efforts on behalf of the scientific community, and the implementation of some really progressive ideas for engaging the community and building new revenue streams. They’re going to require some major cultural shifts in academia too — away from the cloistered academic, who just produces complex esoteria and has no real public persona, which just enables the default media stereotype of the mad scientist or tweed-jacketed toff who speaks unintelligibly; and towards being real people who can share the excitement and importance of really complex issues and concepts in an interesting, intelligible and engaging way. We need to change and broaden the scope of our reward systems for this; we need to embrace diversity in careers and diversity in outputs.

If we don’t, the academic arms race will continue while the pot of money supporting it continues to erode, and in the end there will just be a handful of winners sharing a hollow, meaningless victory of academic ego and irrelevancy.


One thought on “Fixing the science research $$ hole

  1. Pingback: Philanthropists: If you can’t show us the money, show us some love… | Fear and Loathing in Academia

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