Monopolies and monocultures

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You need diversity in the funding landscape in order to maintain its health.

Nobody questions that monopolies are bad for business. When one company or group of companies acquires too much power and influence over a particular sector, it can lead to the extinction of smaller entities – either through takeover or bankruptcy. There’s no competition in pricing, no incentive to maintain quality, and ultimately it’s the consumer who will come off worst. Consequently, most sectors have strict competition laws to prevent monopolies from becoming established.

In science, funding is a competitively-won resource, a bit like the revenue gained from consumer goods. As a result, the same tendency to monopolisation can easily take hold – large, well-funded entities (such as research institutes) can end up attracting the lion’s share of funding, while smaller and lower-budget entities (such as university labs) struggle to win grants. That begins a process whereby research institutes progressively become centres of world-class research but where almost no teaching is done, and universities (even quite prestigious ones) become centres of world-class teaching but second-string research.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing? Maybe we should embrace this bifurcation of academic activity? Let research institutes focus on research and let universities do the teaching?

No. Absolutely not.

Setting aside the question of whether or not scientists should strive to do both research and teaching – and there’s several good reasons why they should – it’s quite likely that this monopolisation of research funding by a small number of organisations is inherently detrimental for the entire research enterprise.

Primarily it’s because large, well-funded entities – for all their resources – are surprisingly hampered in the type of research they can do. Even though in theory they could train their marvellous infrastructure on any question they cared to investigate, in practice there’s a strong requirement to maintain a focus on mainstream topics because of the need to justify the enormous amounts of money expended. When you’re burning through a lot of cash on your core facilities, infrastructure, and staff, then you need to be able to demonstrate that it’s worth it – and in the current scientific climate, the best way to demonstrate worth is through high impact factor publishing and high citation rates.

So what happens? A growing monopolisation of both research funds and research output. More people working on mainstream topics, meaning more people available to cite work in that area, meaning greater perceived value of work in that area – a feedback loop that may be behind the relentless convergence of work on just a few “crown” model organisms such as humans, mice, Drosophila, nematodes, yeast, zebrafish, and Arabidopsis. You don’t hear much about Lethocerus cordofanus these days, despite its remarkable contributions to muscle physiology.

But the problem is that you can’t have everybody working on p53, CFTR, TNF, EGFR, gag, pol and env. And if all the funding goes in this direction, then there’s less and less available for smaller setups and small groups – and eventually those offbeat research programs wither and die, and the focus of the scientists there moves to teaching.

In farming, it’s accepted that the spread of monocultures – huge fields containing just a single species – results in a loss of biodiversity in the name of production. While some science definitely falls into the “production” category – simply churning out larger and better-resolved datasets for Big Science – it’s profoundly short-sighted to think of research as simply the production of knowledge. Research is also about discovery – and the best place to make discoveries is not in well-tilled cropfields, but in rainforests. To maintain the diversity and the health of the research enterprise, it is vital that money is channelled into niche areas as well as mainstream ones.

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