Funding scientific ecosystem services

“Small village in Ukraine”, by Konstantin Kryzhitsky (1884).

Shouldn’t be we funding scientists as well as researchers?

There’s a longstanding debate about whether research funding should primarily go to people or to projects. Is public money better spent on a meticulously-planned research proposal, or on an immaculately-qualified researcher?

The noise over this debate disguises the fact that it is a relatively small distinction. Whether people or projects, we’re still only talking about research grants. Advocating the funding of people rather than projects (such as is done by the Howard Hughes Foundation) is really just an acknowledgement that research projects invariably don’t go as planned – it’s a vote for a safe pair of hands. You’re saying that you trust the person to handle any changes of research direction that may occur. Advocates for the funding of projects will argue that a good proposal will contain contingencies and this approach is less biased in favour of established names. But ultimately, it’s still (all) about research.

What that means is that scientists – academics – are pushed to be researchers only, because it’s only research that brings in third-party funds. This is already generating a two-tier system in science, with research institutes at one pole and universities at the other. The institutes engage in research but (on average) little to no teaching, and the universities engage in teaching but are (on average) not able to compete with the research institutes at the bench. 

But scientists are much more than just researchers – they’re also teachers, mentors, reviewers, communicators, and experts. They are intellectuals, not just prospectors on the frontiers of knowledge. Right now though, scientists can be engaged in those other activities and perhaps even recognised for them in a casual way, but the only thing that generates an income stream is research. Papers bring grants which bring more papers which bring more money.

The problem with this obsessive focus on research as the pre-eminent output of scientific activity is that we invest almost exclusively in research, and leave the other outputs hanging. We select for good researchers, and we hope for the best when it comes to other activities (especially teaching). The outcome is that the responsibility for ensuring top quality training is passed along in an ad hoc and unstructured way, and the institutions with the most to do (universities) don’t receive the largesse or attention that their research-intensive neighbours do.

We focus on funding scientific research, and we don’t ask whether we’re funding the creation of scientists.

So what do we get? Publish or perish. Take take take. Publications and patents and grants, but an assumption that the people doing that high-quality work are an inexhaustible resource. The best places will always attract the best students, so they forge ahead with their research and their competitively-won grants and don’t ask what the consequences for the system as a whole are.

This is a form of asset stripping. Talent stripping. A mining of natural resources. It’s assuming that the stream will continue. And if the research engines in your own country are running low on natural resources, namely home-grown personnel, then you look abroad – just look at the UK’s rightly-derided visa scheme for attracting “international talent”. You consume resources, but end up complaining that the quality of incoming PhD students is going down.

It mirrors the system with the environment. It mirrors the system with Western capitalism. Chase the (research) dollars and ignore the fact that your foundations are crumbling underneath you. What will happen to the research institutes when there are no longer any high-quality students left?

We need to recognise the value of scientific ecosystem services. We need to create incentives for places to produce scientists and not just papers. Of course, research-intensive institutions are what will create the majority of the new findings and new technologies and those things will benefit society. But society also benefits from scientists. It’s those same scientists who are doing the research, but they’re also producing more scientists and they’re helping to generate a more scientifically literate populace. 

That last point is worth stressing. The vast majority of people who study science at degree level do not go on to hold a PhD or work as researchers, but they will go out into the world with a sense, hopefully, that science is important and trustworthy and deserving of public support. That groundswell of approval won’t happen to the same extent if we only assign value to generating PhDs and postdocs for research activities. Society is undervaluing its universities and taking their contributions for granted – instead, we should be investing in these scientific ecosystem services that universities provide.

So what can we do? First, reverse the trend that is pushing universities and research institutes apart. Build links between universities and research institutes so that there can be a flow of students between the two, ensuring young scientists (that means Bachelor and Master’s students too) get both top-quality teaching and exposure to world-class research and infrastructure. I find myself more and more in favour of hybrid institutions with faculty who occupy a continuum from 100% research to 100% teaching and various gradations in between. Closer proximity of teaching and research activity would hopefully also promote higher levels of mutual respect and a sense of shared endeavour.

Second, to fund ecosystem services we need to acknowledge that scientists do more than just research. We need to fund scientists, not just researchers. A genuine people scheme that looked at a range of outputs besides just papers/grants would be a powerful thing. Even if it just funded a chunk of people’s salary and nothing more, that would recognise these other contributions and let them continue. For postdocs looking to the make the jump to independence, having part of their salary already covered for a fixed-term period by such a scheme, maybe even in a renewable way like the Howard Hughes, would make them a much more attractive hiring proposition, and be an in-built affirmation of the kind of value they bring.

Of course I’m biased. I raised 100% of my salary for 7 years through research grants. Since arriving in Würzburg in 2015, I’ve personally supervised 39 students (9 Bachelor’s, 9 Master’s, 21 rotations) in the lab. I run practical classes in two different languages in addition to lecturing every semester. I write what I think is a reasonably well-regarded blog, in addition to contributing opinion pieces to EMBO Reports and eLife, and being involved in other science communication and outreach activities. I am the top-contributing associate member of the cell biology section of Faculty Opinions. I carry out regular peer review work for a range of quality scientific journals. And my lab is in the process of closing and I am on my way out of academia, because the DFG judged that my research output – despite not having had even a single PhD student in 7 years – was insufficient to merit further support. I’d like to think that I represent somebody who brings a lot of value to science, but who has been selected against as a group leader because my other activities besides research are not currently valued in an overt or concrete way. 

The irony is that I think most people do recognise these other activities, currently only of superficial value in career terms, are of importance to the enterprise of science as a whole. But right now they have no dollar value, and that means that they’re devalued. Science is about more than just research, and scientists are more than just researchers. It’s time we started funding ecosystem services, for the benefit of the ecosystem itself. 

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