Research Councils are increasingly focussed on Societal Grand Challenges. At times of decreasing financial resource we need to focus our activities, and directing funding towards research that can really make a difference makes perfect sense. I am concerned, however, that this ‘big picture’ focus could put at risk the fundamental underpinning disciplines. Take synthetic chemistry (and I am not a synthetic chemist) – if we are to make a difference in the treatment of diseases associated with ageing, for example, at some point someone will need to synthesise molecules as candidate drugs. Yet, with the demise of a significant fraction of R&D in big Pharma within the UK, and decreased focus on synthetic chemistry within EPSRC, taken at face value it’s hard to see how we can maintain the research base in this area.
I’m not taking a swipe at the Research Councils. They have the incredibly difficult job of pursuading the Treasury to part with money from the public purse to support research. Once again, when money is in short supply, the Treasury righly wants to be assured that this money is well spent. Yet the researchers amongst us know that it is extraordinarily difficult to predict, let alone plan for, research success. On this basis the pitch to the Treasury would go something like this: “Fund all the high quality projects in the UK submitted by our best researchers, for an indeterminate period, and eventually we will discover something really useful. Unfortunately we can’t guarantee when or be precise about what that discovery might be “. I’m being deliberately glib, but you can see that this is unlikely to be a very fruitful conversation with those who hold the purse strings.
So the current funding model is here to stay, and we must learn to adapt to it. We need to ensure, for example, that our strengths in the fundamental disciplines at NU are inextricably intertwined with ‘big’ research projects, as synthetic chemists in SAgE are doing in collaboration with the Northern Institute for Cancer Research in FMS, for example.
In addition we, as institutes and Universities will also need to adjust to the ‘new-world’ of reduced capital funding. We will need to collaborate with other institutions in the region in order to share expensive resources. The Research Councils are keen to recognise those institutions that are paving the way in this regard. Of course, the fly in the ointment is that these same institutions will be competing for the best ‘environment’ score in the Research Excellence Framework – an untenable situation that the Research Councils and Universities will hopefully lobby the Government to change.