back to article Hands off our boffins!

The UK's main sci/tech research funding body, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), has sent out clear signals that Blighty's science budget is being refocused in large part as an industrial subsidy. Government biznovation minister Lord Drayson appears to be behind the moves. Signs of a shift in emphasis have …

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Boffin

Govts should play Civ or somesuch (not Risk)

then they'd realise the one of the best strategies for world domination is massive spending on research. You get all the best inventions before anyone else and can then kick arse on a far superior level :-)

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I didn't realise...

I didn't realise that we spent as much as £3.5bn on Science in this country. You might say it's not a lot but when the Tories are talking of needing to cut £6bn from the education budget per year then it puts it into some sort of perspective.

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WTF?

Sorry...

..but comparing the budget to the likes of Work and Pensions and the NHS is absurd....

Yes it's a worthwile cause, but to say that a system that keeps millions of people alive is on par to a few blokes kicking lumps of metal into space is hardly a valid comparison.

Hell, get rid of a lot of the Royal Navy, may piss Lester off a bit, but you'll get far more cash without resorting to killing people.

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Anonymous Coward

Guided by DBIS?

Guided by DBIS? I'm suprised Mandelson hasn't mandated their money go into research on how best to filter money from the tax payer into his music buddy's pockets or something.

Especially as there's nothing Mandelson would like more than to mandate, man-date, get it? Okay, that was bad.

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shortsighted and venal

Um, I thought we were talking about the government here - isn't that a tad redundant ?

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Imagine if...

As part of paying taxes, we got to decide where those taxes were spent. As a kind of privilege for those few of us that arent on the dole, we get to decide where the money goes.

I would spend 20% of my taxes on the NHS, 20% on education, 10% on police, 0% on paying bureaucrats, and 50% on further investment in science.

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Thumb Up

Wasn't the second page shamelessly playing to your audience?

If so, it worked.

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Sigh - missing the point about research

So many of the technologies that we now take for granted have come about through pure blue-sky research which didn't set out with a concrete aim, but with the target of understanding more about the world.

If all you do is fund research into using what we already know, then you will be at a severe disadvantage to other nations who are doing pure research. When they discover the next big thing guess who is going to best able to make the most of it? It won't be us, we'll still be working on the last big thing and won't have anyone able to work on the new stuff.

The reason we are so big in bio-tech is partly because there are many UK based research groups doing the blue-sky pure research, who are then able to feed this knowledge into the commercial stuff. Without that we'd be dependent of other people to come up with the new stuff in order to follow them.

This is something the US has generally understood. A lot of their research, like that conducted by DARPA is very long-sighted, has few real short term gains, but means they can make the most of it fifteen years down the line when some of the whackier ideas suddenly become feasible.

Once again, short sighted politicians and business types are selling the future for short term gains and a few shiny gadgets.

Colour me surprised.

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Grenade

RE: I didn't realise...

The next UK government will be looking to balance a budget with an estimated deficit of £175 billion (per annum based on 2009 budget)..

The two big spenders (health at £120 billion and welfare at ~£220 billion) are unlikely to be able to provide the necessary savings before an election.

Education is likely to be hit hard because everyone knows students are spongers that never do any work plus they recieve the next biggest share of the taxpayer pie.

As for science getting more money other than "an increase in-line with inflation" - not likely...

P..s for completeness, buying the banks only contributed to a small chunk of the deficit - the main cause of the deficit was the sudden loss of tax that the government was taking from the banks and housing market during the boom.

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Flame

Research should be directed ...

at the poor. In 3 years, scientists in Kenya designed and developed an energy-efficient charcoal stove that transformed the lives of millions of families and set up a new industry: the Kenya Ceramic Jiko.

Families were spending 1/3rd of their income on charcoal for cooking. The stoves saved 1/3rd of the charcoal, paid back their cost in 2 months. Artisans around the country cut up oil drums to make 125,000 stoves a year, undercutting all the big businesses.

So I disagree with both sides. I do not think science should just be spent on long-term curiosity, but neither should it be spent of supporting greedy selfish bastards.

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Yeah, right

"there are cosmologists doing really great inquiry into the origins of the universe. That doesn't have any real benefit to the economy"...

Until string theory ('cos it's good for gravity - but who needs to study that, we all know it sucks), for example, possibly pie-in-the-sky, nonetheless produces mathematics that has ended up having serious applications to condensed matter which might lead to novel, innovative,etc. devices, technologies, etc., etc,. etc. of economic significance.

Yes times are hard, all budgets need to be re-considered and the least meritorious (reluctantly) put aside, but for god's sake don't elevate being economical with scare resources into a guiding principle of research etc.

If the long-term economic process (agricultural - industrial - service...) is indeed leading the most developed nations towards a "knowledge based economy", i.e. where the what is known, in all generality, can be valuably applied on behalf of others, this approach will merely turn artists into craftsmen and then into mere jobbing workmen. Welcome to the future Britain of pure Polish Plumbing in which we do nothing particularly well but we're cheap and available.

How about finally reforming the agricultural subsidy system (slash other waste bucket of your choice) and investing more in a sphere of activity that can only return greater rewards the more you put into it.

If this is a Vision of the Future it's the vision of a cataract ridden, short sighted, blinkered, photophobe.

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FAIL

if they want more scientsts....

maybe they should put some money towards educating them. instead we get saddled with a big student loan and ZERO guaranteed funding for masters/phd's with only scholership or limited research council grants.

maybe a bit of positive treatment might help as well. if the science's are so important why do the people training to enter these area's get the same funding as art/media studies/vinyard management . i'm not a philistine but art is a product of society and should not IMO be classed the same as the subjects that are required for society to exist (would you rather have a chemist or a fine art grad)

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Useless thinking

"there are cosmologists doing really great inquiry into the origins of the universe. That doesn't have any real benefit to the economy"...

Or people 80years ago thinking about how electrons could be waves. I mean, what use is a material that only semi-conducts electricity?

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Speaking as one of the afore-mentioned boffins

The question you have to ask DBIS is this: how many boffins do you expect to leave the UK in search of better prospects?

We put up with the low pay, and the petty bureaucracy, in return for sufficient funding to do something interesting and then tell others about it. We build up networks of friends around the globe. And, if conditions become uncomfortable, we are highly mobile.

So, for computing: Seattle, the Bay Area, or Sophia Antipolis vs Manchester? Right now, what holds me back are worries about health insurance and the doubtful nature of my rusty French. If either country has the foresight to make me an offer, I'm interested.

All it would take to wreck UK Science and Engineering is for politicians in another part of the world to make us an offer we can't refuse. An interesting ploy for the USA, at the right time, would be to make a blanket offer to consider all UK scientists in disciplines of interest, short-circuiting current immigration red-tape. For France the immigration status is even easier to sort out, and the climate in Nice is attractive. So to the French minister I say: "Give me a modest salary, and the research funding I need, and I'll move tomorrow."

And besides, buying up another countries scientists is probably the cheapest way to undermine it's viability.

(And if you want an example of how to do science in a recession look at the Alvey Project in the early 1980s. The UK CS scene was transformed by this, and ARM is only the most significant of the many productive companies resulting from that decision.)

What has David Willetts got to say?

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Stop

Hang on a sec...

...there already is an agency charged with making economic sense out of blue-sky research. It's called the Technology Strategy Board and it was specifically set up (spun out of the old DTI) to bring "pure" R&D of the Universities and commercial R&D together for the benefit of all.

Well, I work for them, and I think that's the plan. Drayson really ought to know about this, it's in his portfolio.

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Hopeless?

"The question you have to ask DBIS is this: how many boffins do you expect to leave the UK in search of better prospects?"

I doubt they care....thats part of the problem. The only hope really is things become more sensible once the tories get in power, but I suspect they will cut the science budget anyway as part of general cutbacks....

So this postdoc will be giving up on science in the near future - it just doesnt seem to be a viable career path with all these funding cuts being implemented seemingly year after year (its only 1 year since the last stfc funding crisis that lost a lot of people their jobs!).

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driving with myopy risks hitting a wall

Looks like someone here doesn't get how research works. You start with a bunch of pure research projects; an unpredictable fraction of these eventually result in applications. Then you can start a cycle of refinement of said applications; eventually, they are perfected enough to be commercially profitable. If you cut out the pure research at the top, the whole thing is doomed to stop eventually.

Cutting funds to pure research in order to save money is like turning off your car's engine to save fuel. Sure, you'll keep running on inertia for a while, and spend no money while doing so, but only an idiot would consider this a good plan.

Besides, as David Lester pointed above, scientists are more mobile than ever - they have friends around the world, travel a lot, know multiple languages. Keep this up, and you'll start hurting for competent applied researchers too.

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FAIL

Wooster Goes Looting

"If the odd spin-off economic benefit should occur then well and good, though we feel on the whole this would work better if published for the benefit of the entire human race than if held as intellectual property - the web, to name one such development, would probably never have worked if it had been someone's property."

Completely agree! All Lord Wooster wants to do (in a long tradition of academic pilfering) is to continue the looting of the intellectual wealth of our species by having his corporate friends siphon off the rights to every last bit of research so that they may be sold back to the taxpayer - you know, Wooster, the people who actually filled the Treasury account that you and your corrupt friends are dipping into.

If it were up to Wooster, there would only be a bunch of "design" and marketing students sitting in meeting rooms making "straining very hard while on the potty" noises trying to think of a better iPod, while every other nation gets on with (1) the fundamental research which actually make such things possible, and (2) the engineering required to roll such stuff out. And no: you can't skip (1) and go straight to (2) unless your highest ambition is to be the next country in line after, say, Vietnam to have the lofty job of gluing bits of stuff together in a plant built by foreigners, running foreign-made equipment and run by foreign people. Why foreign people? Because they bothered to do the science.

How about diverting money into science and engineering (not "skills", for feck's sake - you make it sound like the height of the country's aptitude is changing a lightbulb) from the corrupt, fraudulent financial industry? You know, the people who've soaked up a lot of cash after having "lost" a lot of cash, still shafting the average punter with ridiculous tariffs, charges and rates, whilst managing not to be up before the beak for the obvious fraud perpetrated in the name of the god of financial instruments.

In "Golgafrincham B-Ark", the "B" presumably stands for "Britain".

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Anonymous Coward

@how many boffins do you expect to leave the UK in search of better prospects?

... well, it is unlikely to matter.

Firstly, not all boffins are mobile -- they often have partners, children, and houses which make them less mobile.

Secondly, despite how self-important many of these boffins are, they mostly squat on top of a vast array of (supposedly) more junior boffins (e.g. postdocs), a fair fraction of whom are just as boffinacious as their boss; and would (and could) easily replace that boss when he or she demonstrated their "mobility" and f**ked off to France.

Thirdly, the UK could just import boffins of a suitable standard from overseas [1].

What counts is the resources available to UK based boffinry. So feel free to throw your little hissy fit and sod-off, boss-boffins -- there are plenty of under-boffins and xeno-boffins just waiting for you to clear your desk, ... and it wouldn't surprise me if they were better than you anyway. And take your exclusive little "network" away with you, because the new lot can bootstrap their own petty little cliques, and even their own valuable cross-disciplinary collaborations.

[1] Oh wait, they already are importing them, and have been for quite some time.

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Anonymous Coward

@AC 14:50

Well unfortunately you're both right and wrong - many of the boss-boffins are less mobile due to partners/children/houses as you say... and that's just one of the reasons why its the under-boffins/postdocs who will go overseas to get jobs, and who knows, maybe settle and have families over there, leaving a load of lecturers in the UK with jobs for life but no research or researchers..

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@how many boffins do you expect to leave the UK in search of better prospects?

Dear AC (14.50GMT),

I thought I might get a reply of that nature. ;-)

We are in complete agreement: what matters is the resources available to "UK based boffinry". And by that I mean PhD grants and money for post docs. If it's taken away, then there's not much point in my under-boffins or any xeno-boffins replacing me is there? They'd also be better off elsewhere. Don't forget that in today's world, my under-boffins are not UK nationals. As for getting UK nationals as PhD students....

And by taking away the PhD grants, the primary mechanism for finding your overseas boffins (for subsequent use in UK industry) is also removed. But you knew that, didn't you?

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Boffin

Idiots!

Hardly a surprise though. This f**king government have f**ked up almost everything else & had a pretty good go at killing research already. For some reason the spelt it FEC but we knew what it meant. Now they're going to kill the half-starved goose by only paying for it when golden eggs are in sight.

Just wonderful. The bean counters have taken over the asylum, having done such a good job with the economy. Universities are going to get shafted so that Drayson can siphon more cash to the BAe's & QinetiQ's of the day to pay their fat cats & shareholders too much. Not that I have high hopes for the incoming Tories - Thatcher was hardly good for UK science & industry.

UK Boffinry is already under strain, even in the better off areas such as pharma. Almost every university tells the same story as the one I'm currently working at, poor prospects for research grants, no long term prospects for junior staff, and shiny bits of kit standing idle because the equipment grant (some government scheme or other) is separate from the support grant & they don't have a consumables budget or manpower or both...

Furthermore, if you kill research you not only kill future prospects but drive off the brightest who need to be teaching the next generation.

If there is one.

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Anonymous Coward

under/xeno-boffins, also better off elesewhere?

Not necessarily. Any given postdoc-boffin, for example, would be better off as a permanent lecturer-boffin, than in their current position living on short-term money. All this "postdoc money" does (has done) is casualize the research base; and that casualization (ie economic uncertainty) makes the researchers less efficient compared to a comparable number of (nominally) permanent positions.

Of course, any recently promoted-to-lecturer-boffin might subsequently want to be better off still ... but they're nevertheless better off than they were. And as long as the supply of under-funded talent exceeds resources, the petulant "I'm going to walk out" line carries little weight.

And _your_ under-boffins might not be UK nationals, but where I am plenty of them are. Further xeno-boffins are frequently imported as lecturer- and prof-boffs, they aren't just PhD students.

AC1450

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FAIL

I didn't realise...

@Tom 15 Posted Thursday 1st October 2009 11:32 GMT

"I didn't realise that we spent as much as £3.5bn on Science in this country. You might say it's not a lot but when the Tories are talking of needing to cut £6bn from the education budget per year then it puts it into some sort of perspective."

Indeed it does -- pretty much *all* of the science in this country could be funded for not much more than half of the trimmable bits of the education budget.

See also David Mitchell's excellent column: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/sep/27/david-mitchell-pointless-studies-survey

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Boffin

Priorities

Given how well science works in this country and how poorly the government performs in comparison in delivering "economic and social value-for-money", maybe they should first get their own house in order?

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ringfenced? bollocks, see

see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6475801.stm

para 4: "The announcement will give cheer to the research community which has been angered by a recent claw-back of £98m in funding to cover cost overruns at the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry)."

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Economic benefits & Blue Sky research

The snag with Blue Sky research is that the economic benefits don't necessarily benefit those that paid for the original research - the benefits tend to go to whichever companies are first to find an application and patent it. Companies in the US and the Far East have shown themselves to be quite adept at beating their counterparts in the UK.

Now that there is a huge deficit in the UK and numerous problems that need to addressed, research that may or may not provide some useful benefits at sometime on the future is unlikely to come high on the list of priorities.

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