The marvellous Ben Goldacre:
It’s been a marvellous year for bullshit. We saw quantitative evidence showing that drug adverts aimed at doctors are routinely factually inaccurate, while pharmaceutical company ghostwriters were the secret hands behind letters to the Times, and a whole series of academic papers. We saw more drug companies and even regulators withholding evidence from doctors and patients that a drug was dangerous – the most important and neglected ethical issue in modern medicine — and that whistleblowers have a rubbish life.
More via the link above.
Science is Vital (a new UK organisation opposed to cuts in the science budget there) offer a very interesting economic rationale for investing in research on their site [post reproduced in full]. Many of these points are just as important here in Ireland. There are lots of links below to actual evidence on the importance of investment in R&D.
Point 1. Investment in science and engineering skills and research yields broad and historically proven economic returns. Such investment, if made now, could drive the growth needed to secure a strong economic recovery:
- By showing a strong and sustained commitment to science and engineering, the UK can attract and retain excellent and internationally mobile scientists and engineers and the industries that seek to employ them, which will give immediate gains through tax revenues and employment.
- The UK’s economic climate, funding, and the reputations of its universities, all help to attract more and more overseas students – 250,000 in 2008/09, who contributed about £5bn to the UK economy. (BIS SET statistics)
- 180,000 people gain from working in R&D. (BIS SET statistics)
- Finland and Korea responded to their economic crises in the 1990s by investing heavily in R&D while severely constraining public spending; these investments helped their strong regrowth in knowledge-based economies. The UK has not yet seized the opportunity, still available, to invest in science and engineering to accelerate the recovery
- Multifactor productivity (MFP) reflects the extent to which an economy can derive GDP growth from a certain level of labour and capital. A 2004 OECD analysis estimated that a 1% increase in business R&D increases MFP by 0.13% and a 1% increase in public R&D increases MFP by 0.17%.
- A 2008 medical research report estimated that every £1 spent on public or charitably funded research gave a return of 30p a year in perpetuity from direct or indirect GDP gains, on top of the direct gains of the research.
- Corporate investment in R&D brings a return of around 50% to the public. This compares to a private return of around 20% captured by investors themselves.
Point 2. The Government is keen to boost confidence in the UK by making decisive cuts. But cuts in the science and engineering sectors would have the opposite effect, damaging investor confidence, reducing levels of investment and impacting the quality of higher education:
- Science in the UK already operates as a ‘Big Society’, with public investment and private enterprise strongly interacting. Cuts to academia or innovation support could have unforseen and damaging consequences due to the links between them.
- Investment in science cannot simply be turned off and then turned back on again a few years later. As former Science Minister Lord Waldegrave said, “If we cut science now, just as the benefits of nearly twenty years of consistent policy are really beginning to bear fruit, we will seriously damage our economic prospects.”
- The total budget for R&D is an important signal to investors and researchers. If the UK is not perceived to support R&D then they move to more favourable countries, as UK business leaders have previously warned. The UK currently receives a very high proportion of its R&D funds from foreign owned firms (17%), which may be even more responsive to market conditions than UK-based companies.
- If research projects are cut short, this wastes money that has already been spent and risks mothballing large-scale projects such as the Diamond Light Source or Isis.
- Reducing investment in R&D would reduce the potential for economic growth. There will be fewer breakthroughs, and less development of them into beneficial products. The general public will notice falling productivity, given the level of media interest in and coverage of scientific and medical discoveries, as well as new (including green) technologies.
- The UK’s reputation in science and engineering has already been damaged (e.g. physics funding crisis, and cuts already announced). We can recover with prompt action, but if not done soon, it will be hard to regain our previously enviable reputation.
- Reduced funding for higher education teaching and research has already resulted in job losses. As the teaching of high-cost science and engineering courses is already under-resourced, and some universities have accepted unfunded places, further financial pressure is likely to lead to departmental closures.
- Universities increasingly bolster their finances by recruiting overseas students, who bring with them high levels of fees. If the UK becomes less desirable, then this income will fall.
- If the capacity and quality of the higher education system is reduced, a generation of less-skilled graduates is the result. Without enough people trained in science, technology, engineering and maths, it will be difficult to retain industrial investment in the UK.
- If university funding is lowered, universities will scale back on renewing and upgrading their teaching and research facilities, reducing the value of the skills of new graduates.
Point 3. UK science and engineering is already extremely efficient:
Nearly 30% of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is produced by sectors intensive in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Yet the UK government spends a smaller proportion of its GDP on research than any other nation in the G7, bar Italy. We rank 14th in the OECD under the same metric – just behind Belgium and Canada, and on par with the EU27 average. Despite this, the UK:
- Leads the world in a huge range of scientific disciplines.
- Produces 12% of global citations with around 1% of the population.
- Is home to 29 of the world’s top 200 universities, including three of the top ten (THE rankings).
This is possible through UK science being very efficient:
- The UK is 3rd in the world in terms of citations per researcher
- The UK is ranked first in the G8 for scientific papers produced as a proportion of GDP
- We overwhelmingly focus on world-class research. About 90% of research funds (£980m out of £1095m) from HEFCE go to 3* or 4* research (defined as ‘internationally excellent’ and ‘world-leading’, respectively).
- Research council grants are extremely competitive. For instance, success rates of 19% at the MRC (down from 21% in 2008-9) and 22% at the BBSRC mean that thousands of proposals are rejected. In 2003, the overall grant success rate across research councils was around 40% – it has now fallen to around 20% (in 2008).
While efficiency savings in R&D still need to be made, these savings must be reinvested in science and engineering.
Point 4. The Government needs to develop a long-term and stable policy framework to make the UK a country where people and companies want to do science and engineering, enabling researchers to innovate, and encouraging private investment:
- Analysis of over 100 UK case studies by the Russell Group found that it took an average of 9 years from an initial discovery to produce a license or other measurable impact (e.g., significant commercial investment in a spin-out company). Given that the research cycle can have a decades-long timeframe, the public environment in which research plans are made needs to be of the same order.
- Private investments, research programmes and careers are reliant on a long-term, coherent, and credible policy framework. Instability will reduce the ability of these individuals to do their most high-impact and valuable work.
- A lack of long-term investment framework will compound
- In spring 2010, the most important organisations in UK science urged the government to develop long-term plans. The Royal Society’s Scientific Century report urged the government to outline spending plans over a 15-year period to provide “a clear, long-term framework within which to plan, build, and compete globally”.
- The House of Lords Science & Technology Committee recommended that the government adopt and articulate a long-term vision for UK Research, and the Council for Science and Technology talked of a vision for the future in which the UK research base is successful and globally competitive 20 years out. They urged that, “the Government needs to develop consistent, focused long-term industrial strategies”.
Point 5. Investment in science must be increased, or at the very least maintained, it order for the UK to remain internationally competitive
- The UK invested 1.8% of its GDP in R&D in 2007. This is short of the UK’s own target of 2.5%, and further behind the EU target of 3%.8. The new Government needs to commit to the challenging goal of at least 2.5% of GDP to be spent on R&D from all sources by 2014.
- The UK has an excellent track record, with four of the world’s top 30 research universities. But this excellence is threatened by rapidly increasing investment overseas, particularly in countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China, that could grow into research giants. Indeed, the UK’s share of scientific publications fell over the last decade, while China’s quadrupled.
- Other world leaders have set out the case for investing in science and engineering.
The advantages that the UK built upon – including an early scientific and industrial base, the English language, and openness to international investors and workers – will not sustain our excellence without a strong new commitment to the future.
A press release from SFI:
Ministers welcome joint funding deal boost for pioneering biomedical research
Wednesday, September 29th 2010: Minister for Health and Children, Mary Harney T.D., and Minister for Labour Affairs and Public Service Transformation, Dara Calleary T.D., have welcomed the announcement today of a partnership agreement between Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Health Research Board (HRB), with the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the UK.
The new SFI-HRB-Wellcome Trust Biomedical Research Partnership will mean that the prestigious Wellcome Trust will jointly fund biomedical researchers in Ireland with Science Foundation Ireland and the Health Research Board.
Minister for Health and Children, Mary Harney T.D. described the forging of the new arrangement as “a significant occasion for health research in Ireland”. She added “Vibrant health research is critical to how we generate new ways to care for patients, advance the delivery of our health services, and contribute to our economic development. This agreement will add to the international standing of Ireland in health research and increase our attractiveness as a location for research and development in biomedical and lifesciences. Today’s strategic partnership with the Wellcome Trust represents a significant boost for the entire spectrum of Irish health research.
Speaking at the announcement of the new partnership, Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said: “We are delighted to enter into this partnership with Science Foundation Ireland and the Health Research Board. By working together, our joint funding will support the best scientists and clinical researchers in Ireland, ensuring that biomedicine in the country remains globally competitive.”
Commenting on the importance of the agreement, Minister for Labour Affairs & Public Service Transformation, Dara Calleary T.D., said “For Ireland’s smart economy to properly manifest itself in our day-to-day lives, excellence in science, health and engineering R&D must be identified and given every opportunity to progress and prosper. The signing of this collaborative funding deal is a major endorsement of Ireland’s research potential, and will greatly assist its connectivity with the international research community and, particularly, its engagement with the commercial sector, both here and abroad.”
The announcement of the agreement was also attended by Prof Pat Fottrell, Chairperson, Science Foundation Ireland, Dr Stephen Simpson, Director of Life Sciences at Science Foundation and Mr Enda Connolly, CEO of the Health Research Board.
About the Wellcome Trust
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests. www.wellcome.ac.uk
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The British Chiropractic Association has dropped its libel case against Simon Singh. Read Simon’s, our and some of our supporters’ reactions to the news here: www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/478 Keep an eye out for coverage about this today – there has already been lots, I’ll include a few links below.
We are so pleased for Simon that the BCA has dropped the case but the campaign is far from over. Until we have a public interest defence that can protect discussion and comment about evidence and research, scientists, commentators, bloggers, forum users, authors and NGOs will continue to be bullied into silence, and cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst is still fighting to defend his right to speak out about a medical device clinical trial.
With your support the Coalition for Libel Reform has secured manifesto commitments from all the major parties. But we need to continue to put pressure on politicians to make sure these promises are turned into meaningful reform once the new government is in place. We are organising a Free Speech General Election Hustings where you can come and question politicians on their commitment to libel reform for Wednesday 21st April in London. Check http://www.libelreform.org/ for more details about this soon.
The campaign reached 50,000 signatures of support last night. We really need to double this to keep the pressure up and make sure the politicians are aware of how serious the need for libel reform is. Please do all you can to help us reach our target by encouraging people to sign up at http://www.libelreform.org/
Times Online Science writer Simon Singh wins bitter libel battle
BBC News Case dropped against Simon Singh
The Guardian Simon Singh libel case dropped
For an updated list of coverage see www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/478
Message from Simon Singh: A big step for me, a small step for libel reform, and what you can do to help
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Message from Simon Singh : “A big step for me, a small step for libel reform, and what you can do to help today.”
With apologies for cross posting,
Sorry for the silence, but it has been a ridiculously hectic (and happy) time since last week’s victory at the Court of Appeal. However, I urgently wanted to get in touch to update you on the status of my case, the latest news on libel reform and what you can do today to push libel reform up the political agenda.
BCA v Singh
April Fool’s Day 2010 was a day to remember. The Court of Appeal gave a ruling in my libel case with the British Chiropractic Association. The ruling strongly backs my arguments and puts me in a much stronger position when my trial eventually takes place. At last, after two years of defending my article and my right to free speech, I seem to have the upper hand and can breathe a small sigh of relief.
Moreover, the judges made it clear that they did not want to see scientists and science journalists being hauled through the High Court. In particular, they endorsed the view that a so-called comment defence should be adequate for scientific and other articles on matters of public interest. As well as the legal technicalities, the three wise, charming and handsome judges quoted Milton on the persecution of Galileo and directed that the High Court should not become an “Orwellian Ministry of Truth”.
Libel Reform Campaign
This is a small step forward for libel reform, but there is still a huge battle to be fought over the issues of costs, libel tourism, public interest defence, balancing the burden of proof, restricting the ability of powerful corporations to bully individuals (e.g., bloggers, journalists, scientists) and so on.
This is great news. Truly important for science that robust debate and analytic, evidence-based peer-review be allowed as part of public discourse.
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A very quick note to make sure you heard that Simon Singh’s appeal in his case with the BCA was upheld today. It means that Simon can now defend his article as comment rather than as fact, as Justice Eady had originally ruled.
Simon said today: “It is ridiculous that it has cost £200,000 to establish the meaning of a handful of words. I am delighted that my meaning has been vindicated by three of the most powerful judges in the country, and I relish the opportunity to defend this meaning in court. However, I am still angry that libel is so horrendously expensive. That is just one of the reasons why the battle for libel reform must continue.”
You can read more comments from campaigners and supporters at www.libelreform.org/news/450-judgement-in-simon-singh-libel-case
And the judgment and Simon’s lawyer’s notes on what this means for Simon’s case and for libel reform is here: http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/473/
Jack of Kent has blogged on the ruling here: http://jackofkent.blogspot.com/
BBC Radio 4 World at One http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00rlff7
BBC online http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8598472.stm
And check here for updated lists of press coverage: www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/473/
Keep an eye out for Simon, his lawyer Robert Dougans and members of the libel reform campaign on Channel 4 news, the BBC News channel, Sky News and BBC radio stations this evening.
Simon, and the campaign for libel reform, both still have a very long fight ahead of us. We are very pleased the three most powerful members of the Judiciary in England have recognised the need for libel law reform. We need to make sure everyone else does too.
Sense About Science
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Sense About Science is a small charity that equips people to make sense of science and evidence. We depend on donations, large and small, from people who support our work. You can donate, or find out more, at www.senseaboutscience.org/donate
And from Jack of Kent:
Simon Singh today won in the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal held he was expressing “honest opinion”.
It is a stunning judgment, quoting Milton and expressly adopting a US legal maxim that: “Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation“.
You can read the judgment in full here.
And so the British Chiropractic Association – which happily promotes bogus treatments even though there is not a jot of evidence – lost.
The BCA – discredited since the plethora – has announced that it is “disappointed” and that it is “considering its position” in respect of what has always been a staggeringly misconceived libel claim.
The judgment is packed with interesting things and will repay careful study.
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 . 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.