Grant us some leeway, please

November 2, 2007

Research is never straightforward and researchers need financial flexibility if they are to stay ahead in their field, says Tim Birkhead. This year Boris Johnson, the Conservative former Shadow Minister for Higher Education, published a piece entitled "Universities and schools: The great white lies" in Hugo de Burgh et al's Can the Prizes Still Glitter? (University of Buckingham Press). Not everyone shares Mr Johnson's views but in this case he was spot on.

It is important to recognise that there are great white lies everywhere, and it is about time that some of those concerning scientific research were aired. In the arse-covering environment in which researchers try to function, this is a plea for some common sense.

Almost everyone, other than scientists themselves, assumes that research proceeds in an orderly, logical manner from A to B to C and so on. Nothing could be further from the truth, and in my field at least such an orderly progression would be unusual.

A few years ago a colleague applied for a research grant and got the cash. A week later he discovered that someone in the US had done the major part of exactly the same project, albeit in a completely different context.

Excitedly, he contacted the author and asked him if he wanted to collaborate. His reply was immediate and positive. When he was asked how feasible the experiments were, the collaborator said: "Like falling off a log." And it was. Three weeks later, between them they had the results and had done three years' work in just three weeks.

He decided not to tell the research council and instead used the money to buy a Porsche 911 and took a six-week break in the Caribbean - his fantasy, not mine. Actually, he used the funding to do a series of additional experiments because he had the security of knowing that it wasn't crucial that they all generated publishable results. The overall result was a satisfying batch of papers in high-quality journals.

Government, research councils and university finance departments seem to believe that no new developments ever occur between writing a research proposal and obtaining a decision many months later. There also seems to be no recognition that to stay ahead in a particular field, researchers might need some financial flexibility to respond quickly to new developments.

It is also widely assumed that if one has a grant to do X, one will use the money from that grant only for that purpose. This is even more naive. The boundaries of an individual's research programme are permeable, and sometimes the only pragmatic solution for getting things done is to use funds from Peter to pay Paul. That's the issue: getting things done rather than sticking rigidly to a set of rules. Most naive of all is the idea that we can estimate how much time we might spend on research each week. The reality is that you cannot plan cutting-edge research; a new development may require a huge amount of additional effort - even seven days a week.

With full economic costing we are expected to state the time we will spend on research - let's say 25 per cent. This is fine for the first grant, less realistic for two and plain silly for more than four. Yet another colleague of mine holds 12 research grants simultaneously and he said he would spend 10 to 25 per cent of his time on each of them.

Yes, it is messy, but that is the nature of research, and the sooner we have leaders who recognise this, the easier it will be for UK researchers to stay ahead of the international competition.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology, Sheffield University.

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