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How should we fund research: invest in projects or people? And how do returns on research investment arise?

The Wellcome Trust has recently announced that it is moving away from a system based on project-based funding to one based on investigator-based funding. The emphasis, according to the press release, is as follows:

Wellcome Trust Investigator Awards will provide researchers and their teams with the support to pursue individual, bold visions without constraints. The awards will give researchers the maximum amount of freedom to be creative and innovative in their approach. Their breakthroughs will increase our understanding of health and disease, and will lead to new technologies and treatments that can benefit patients.

This is really a revolution in terms of of research funding. As Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, says

“New science funding rules that prioritise studies with anticipated economic or social benefits are misconceived and risk stifling discovery and understanding, according to the head of Britain’s biggest independent supporter of research …” (more)

This approach couldn’t be more different than the intuitively-appealing, well-intended and empirically-unfounded ideas* regarding the relationship between research and economic growth promoted by some politicians (such as in this article by former Taoiseach John Bruton). The path from university research to innovation is much more complicated, unpredictable, uncontrollable and non-linear than anyone would expect. See this post on the process at Cambridge University; see this superb article from the Financial Times on science, technology and innovation as wealth and employment generators; see this post on tapping the riches of science, which analyses the US experience of turning university research into wealth and jobs; and this post on remandating the IFSC and this post on re-engineering incentives in the Irish economy toward research and innovation.

*[Update: This sentence should also have said ‘and empirically-unfounded’]

This paper in PLoS Biology (‘Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research‘ by Peter Lawrence) underlines the new approach. It is well-worth reading, and anyone who is on the grant-getting treadmill will recognise the reality described. Note the pungent subtitle: ‘The granting system turns young scientists into bureaucrats and then betrays them’. The paper is open access and is fully accessible.


It is a summer day in 2009 in Cambridge, England, and K. (39) looks out of his lab window, wondering why he chose the life of a scientist [1]. Yet it had all begun so well! His undergraduate studies in Prague had excited him about biomedical research, and he went on to a PhD at an international laboratory in Heidelberg. There, he had every advantage, technical and intellectual, and his work had gone swimmingly. He had moved to a Wellcome-funded research institute in England in 1999. And although his postdoc grant, as is typical, was for only two years, he won a rare career development award that gave him some independence for four more years. A six-year postdoc was an unusual opportunity, and it allowed him to define his own research field. By 2004, he had published six experimental papers in good journals, and on four of these, he was first author. It was the high point in his career, and when he applied for posts in Cambridge, London, Stanford, and Tubingen, he was short-listed for them all. He chose Cambridge University and a Royal Society Research Fellowship that offered him up to ten years’ salary. This should have brought the peace of mind to plan projects that would take five years, or even longer.

So, what went wrong? It had taken almost a year to prepare, submit, and be awarded his initial research grant (for late 2005–late 2008) from a publicly funded agency in the UK, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Immediately, he hired a technician and started to train her carefully. During early 2006, he took on a postdoc, Frieda, and a student, and they both settled in well. However, by mid 2007, K. began to worry about his future: although the BBSRC grant had run for less than two years, it was already high time to apply for another. He submitted a new application in October 2007 and, although it was well reviewed and received a high rating, he found out in spring 2008 that it was not funded. As an insurance, he had concocted a different project (you cannot submit to different agencies with the same plans) and sent it to Cancer Research, UK, in February 2008—this application was also excellently reviewed but also turned down in August 2008. Now he was near the end of his initial grant, and his technician, who had a family to support, left to take a more secure job in a nearby research institute—laying waste to all her specialised knowledge that they had both worked so hard to build. Soon, Frieda’s postdoc grant was about to end, so K. applied to several local colleges and trusts to keep her going, but won her only another 6 months’ salary.

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