Donkey swan dives into funding puddle

January 27, 1995

As a rule, to which Steve Jones (THES, January 13) is an honourable exception, admitting failure is not done. It scarcely matters whether, as John Krebs suggests in last week's THES, this failure is more apparent than real in an individual case because there are many who share Steve Jones's disillusion.

In the competitive environment created by current funding arrangements, an increasing proportion of us are going to have to face up to failure and its consequences. When fewer than 10 per cent of research grants are funded and when research funding from the funding councils is allocated by a procedure designed to concentrate funds in only a few university departments the donkeys are going to outnumber the swans by at least ten to one. Significant resources have been spent on training these donkeys : what sort of logic then allows them simply to go out to grass? Swans can afford to stay mute, but the donkeys must bray.

These reflections are prompted by a string of failed research proposals sufficient to wallpaper my office: only university fire regulations and a dislike for the Natural Environment Research Council logo have prevented me from getting out my paste brush and stepladder. The trouble is that there are so few uses for a failed research proposal as the NERC considers their recycling ecologically unsound.

We donkeys must think out a strategy if our research is to survive. Like Steve Jones, many of us must have considered leaving the treadmill of the grant round. Unfortunately, it is not going to be that easy because even if the carrot for those who stay on it is illusory, the stick for those who get off is all too real. This is wielded by employers who, hungry for overheads and the status that research grants bring, insist that cash is the measure of academic worth. Some British universities have begun charging departments for office and lab space, and as this market-minded insanity spreads the pursuit of knowledge is being replaced by the pursuit of cash to pay the rent. I find it as hard as any other donkey to give up the treadmill and so I will not give up just yet. If you are a swan refereeing my latest research grant proposal, please forget I ever said anything. If you are a donkey, let us bray.

Jonathan Silvertown Open University

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