Turmoil In The U.K. | Chemical & Engineering News
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Web Date: June 9, 2009

Turmoil In The U.K.

Scientists protest perceived marginalization of basic research
Department: Government & Policy, Science & Technology
Keywords: funding, policy, UK, petition
Credit: World Economic Forum
Credit: World Economic Forum

Once again, U.K. scientists are petitioning their government over an issue related to government science funding. In this round, more than 1,100 U.K. scientists have signed a petition protesting a requirement that applications for government research funding state the future impact of the proposed research.

The petition, which began circulation on June 2, calls on Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government to "promote discovery and innovation in U.K. science," instead of directing funds "to projects whose outcomes are specified in advance." The previous petition successfully reigned in a government proposal that would have temporarily barred government research grant applicants who were repeatedly unsuccessful (C&EN, April 27, page 26).

Scientists from disciplines as diverse as stem cell biology and theoretical physics have signed the new online petition, which was initiated by John Allen, a biochemist at Queen Mary, University of London.

"The best research gives unexpected results. You don't always know the application or where the research will end," Allen says of the government's impact statement requirement.

But the impact statements are "not designed to ask peer reviewers or applicants to predict the outcome of research before it has even started," Chloë Somers, press officer for U.K. Research Councils, an umbrella organization for all of the government's research councils, noted in a statement. "It is intended to allow the applicant to highlight potential pathways to impact, and to allow the Research Councils to support them in these activities. Excellent research without obvious or immediate impact will not be disadvantaged in this process."

Worries that basic, or so-called blue-skies, research will be sacrificed for projects with short-term economic payoffs have been increasing in the U.K. In February, the government alarmed many scientists with an announcement that funding should be directed toward research that could benefit the economy. Then, on June 5, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that the federal department responsible for science and higher education would be dissolved, and that funding for these activities would fall under the purview of a newly formed Department of Business, Innovation & Skills.

Allen points out that the terms "university" and "higher education" have "disappeared completely from the title of any government department."

"The government wants specific solutions to specific--and legitimate--concerns such as climate change or bacterial resistance to drugs," Allen says. "But if you only follow a political roadmap for science you are not going to discover something truly innovative."

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