Research intelligence - Poacher who rather enjoys gamekeeping

Douglas Kell was a whizz at landing grants. Now he is the one handing them out. Paul Jump reports

October 20, 2011

Credit: Corbis
The best brains: neuroscientists in particular have been encouraged to apply their skills to fit the BBSRC's strategic priorities

It is hardly a surprise that Douglas Kell surveys the research funding landscape from a "glass half full" perspective. After all, he has been the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council's most highly funded researcher.

And the University of Manchester professor of bioanalytical science never had any ambition to oversee that landscape as BBSRC chief executive - not least because research council heads are not permitted to hold any research council grants. "With £14 million of funding, it wasn't what I was looking to do," Professor Kell told Times Higher Education.

But he was encouraged to apply and, notwithstanding his self-declared lack of "establishment" credentials, was appointed in 2008. Since then he has been "putting all my energies into it" and has been instrumental in the research council's adoption of bioenergy and industrial biotechnology as one of its three strategic priorities.

Professor Kell does not make any apologies for taking a strategic approach to funding. He admitted that science was unpredictable, noting that two of his own most commercially successful findings had come entirely out of the blue. But he said there were some areas of "market failure" for which a "slightly dirigiste" remedy was appropriate.

One example is neuroscience. The BBSRC provoked criticism earlier this year when it lamented that so little of the neuroscience it funds addressed its strategic priorities. But Professor Kell said that rather than cutting funding for the subject, the research council merely wanted to "encourage" neuroscientists to "look carefully at our strategic plan and see if they can use their skills in slightly different areas" - adding that he had "never had the slightest difficulty" in applying his skills in basic science to "a slightly applied problem".

He also recognised that adopting strategic priorities helped the research councils to gain a favourable hearing in the Treasury.

"If I went to the Treasury and said: 'We aren't going to tell you what we are going to do with your money because we haven't got a clue and it is called responsive mode and please give us lots of (money) because we are good at biology,' unsurprisingly that might be met with scepticism.

"But if I say: 'These are the really important problems that afflict the world and all of them have a biological solution,' oddly enough the Treasury says: 'Gosh, you're right. We really should have some people working on those things because actually it will save a ton of money.'?"

But Professor Kell denied that the research concentration agenda had been drawn up with officials in mind.

Neither was there any conscious drive to confine funding to certain institutions. He said the aim was simply to "buy the best science", which increasingly required a multi- disciplinary approach, for which "you need big teams and all the things usually associated with words like 'critical mass'?".

The importance of critical mass also lay behind the decision to concentrate doctoral funding in a relatively small number of "doctoral training partnerships".

"In the modern world you want to expose people to lots of different stuff," he said. "But there is a finite pot of money, so if there are people who are more expensively trained, there will be fewer of them."

Inevitably, there will still be far too many PhD students trained for the number of permanent academic positions available. But Professor Kell is sanguine about that too: "We want people with scientific training to go into politics and other things. And experience shows that those who are very keen on pursuing an academic career usually end up being able to."

The BBSRC's strategic plan predicts that 90 per cent of its funding will be concentrated in the top 30 institutions by the end of the current spending period. But Professor Kell insisted that this was not "greatly different" from the current situation.

He added that the distribution of "almost anything", including scientific productivity, grants won, papers published and citations gained, naturally conformed to a "Zipf distribution", with a small number of people gaining very high figures and a large number with low figures.

For the same reason, he is staunchly opposed to suggestions by some that research funding should simply be distributed equally between eligible scientists. "That would obviously be handing out a lot of money to a lot of people who have demonstrated they are unable to get it in free competition. I don't think that is a very defensible strategy," he said.

Professor Kell believes the BBSRC's most recent application success rate of 24 per cent is about right to ensure that only the very best science is being funded. "I don't think (the UK) would be top in the world (in biology) if we had had a strike rate of 80 per cent," he said.

But he does not believe nature should be entirely left to take its course, noting that the "pretty hostile" mentoring scheme in "grantsmanship" he introduced in the late 1990s as director of research at the then Institute of Biological Sciences at Aberystwyth University saw the institution's success rate "go through the roof".

He admitted that some potentially transformative proposals might fail to attract funding - but no more so now than previously.

"The history of science is full of people whose grants got rejected because they were a bit too left field at the time and who went on to win the Nobel prize," he said. "But people will bootleg and I don't think there are many fantastic things that don't get done as a result of being rejected."

Not that he advocates boot- legging - diverting grant money awarded for particular projects into other schemes. "But if people want to alter their proposal in the light of stuff that happened - an experiment that didn't work or new paper that came out - they can write to us and we will agree.

"We want to fund the best science, not say: 'Sorry you said you were going to do X and you have to keep blundering on in the face of all evidence that it is going to be a disaster'."

Professor Kell fully expects to return to active research himself when he leaves the BBSRC - to which end he dedicates his one day of research a week to keeping up with the literature. But he insists he is enjoying his time as gamekeeper to biology's poachers and intends to serve "some or all" of a second four-year term - if asked - when his first ends next year.

"There are moments when you think there are easier ways of having a life, but I hadn't realised what an honour and privilege it is to serve in this way," he said.

"My views aren't different from what they would be if I wasn't a chief executive, but because you are a chief executive people ask your opinion and take it seriously and that is nice to know."

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