This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
As the first ever Biology Week draws to a close – although not before I take part in a world record attempt this afternoon – we can reflect on what has been a very successful week all round. On Monday, our two Lunchbox roundtable series combined for a special joint event on the future of research careers. On Tuesday I was fortunate enough to attend Ada Lovelace Day Live! at the Institute of Engineering and Technology, a remarkable variety evening featuring an array of entertaining and inspiring female role models involved in science and engineering. My personal highlights were Sarah Angliss’ robot/theramin performance (oh yes) and the delightful compèring of Helen Arney, who’s science-based comedy and singing is a real treat. I also discovered ‘The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage’, a comic drawn by the extremely talented Sydney Padua.
The celebration of Ada Lovelace did not end on the ‘official’ day either, with fringe events still taking place. This afternoon sees the Royal Society host a women in science Wikipedia workshop and edit-a-thon (subsequent article about this available here) followed by a panel discussion led by Uta Frith FRS. And last night the Science Grrl calendar – which aims to showcase the ‘real face of female scientists’ – was launched at the Science Museum. You can find out more and purchase one here.
In other news, this week also saw Ed Miliband become the first leader of a major party to support the campaign to reform the libel laws of England and Wales, which is being driven by English PEN, Index on Censorship and our friends at Sense About Science, who we also met this week to discuss their work in plant science and GM. I’ve written a little about the campaign on the Society of Biology’s blog previously.
With this being such a busy time, it was unsurprising that I ended up missing out on something, and it turned out to be one of the highlights of the week: the RVC Late event at the Royal Veterinary College last night. As an anatomist by training I was very disappointed to miss the horse dissection demonstration and lecture on epilepsy, as well as the chance to explore the museum. But at least I still have the world record attempt to join in with!
This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
Yesterday, Valerie Vaz, MP for Walsall South, organised an adjournment debate on women in science [transcript here]. I recommend you read it. She set out clearly what many others fail to do: that the matter of equality and diversity is not only a social justice issue, but also of vital importance to our competitiveness, and the government needs to do more about it.
Ms Vaz, a Biochemistry graduate, referred to a recent survey run by the Biochemical Society, which sought to bring to light the main problems facing our members, and some solutions to these. Issues associated with having a family – including childcare and the detrimental effects of taking maternity leave or working flexibly/part time within the traditional academic career and funding structures, featured highly in the responses. Furthermore, more female than male academic staff are on fixed-term contracts, and Ms Vaz reported that the gap is increasing.
Such issues are a considerable problem at an individual level, but also pose a great risk to our competitiveness, as diversity in research (as well as a well-motivated community) is benficial for research and innovation. Within academia, some universities and departments are doing a lot to address these imbalances, as I was recently exposed to when I joined an Athena SWAN judging panel for the first time. However, I also realised that some don’t “get it”.
If we are to be an ‘innovation leader’ and secure the future strength of our science base, we need action now. I hope to raise this at Monday’s Science Question Time event on science and growth. Mr Willetts has shown signs that he buys into his role in solving the problems (attending the debate was a good sign), and said yesterday that he is to be accountable for mainstreaming the expertise developed by the UKRC, which used to be funded by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Willetts points to his direction to the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering to instigate a new diversity programme (the subject of the last Policy Lunchbox event). However, as the Royal Society of Chemistry points out, the funding for these programmes is relatively small. He needs to be doing more to promote change, and develop clear targets and a strategy. But I, and others, aren’t sure he gets the whole picture.
@jlush2 thank you. I think you are right.—
Meg Munn (@MegMunnMP) June 14, 2012
Mr Willetts took the opportunity the debate presented to draw attention to BIS support for Vitae, which provides careers support for researchers. He highlighted its role in helping postdoctoral researchers, that oft-neglected community, and his acknowledgement of their need for support is welcome. However, Vitae itself may be heading the way of the UKRC, as the latest Research Fortnight cover story reports: ‘Funding councils throw Vitae £3m lifeline – But careers body still loses more than half its core funding’. Indeed, one of the activities that will lose core funding, RF reports, is the GRADschools programme for postgraduate researchers. Maybe not something to be shouting about then.
Further reading: MPs debate women in STEM (Campaign for Science and Engineering blog)
This is an edited version of a post which first appeared at the British Ecological Society’s blog
Equality and diversity in science was the focus of last week’s Policy Lunchbox, run at Charles Darwin House by the Biochemical Society and British Ecological Society.
Sarah Hawkes, Head of Scientific Engagement at the Royal Society (RS), gave a presentation about her work on the Society’s new four-year programme (scroll down), which focuses on removing the barriers to increasing diversity in the scientific workforce.
The science sector in the UK – and the RS itself – have been the subject of criticism for the notable lack of women amongst their ranks, particularly in more senior positions. In the UK, men are six times more likely than women to work in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) subjects, and of the 46 Fellows appointed at the RS in 2012, only two were women.
The RS’s new programme, funded by the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, aims to address this gender imbalance – as well as tackling other issues of diversity incorporating ethnicity, disability and socio-economic status – across both academia and industry. The idea is to learn from and build upon the number of equality initiatives which already exist to work towards three objectives:
- Defining and understanding the scientific workforce;
- Identifying barriers to entry and progression within the scientific work force, which a view to removing them, and;
- In the long-term, increasing the diversity of the scientific workforce.
The programme will involve data gathering and a large scale policy study, significant work to engage with the scientific community, organising diversity events and activities, and engaging with the Athena SWAN initiative (which the Biochemical Society co-funds) and actors within education.
The scheme has strong backing from Sir Paul Nurse, PRS, who made a statement recently saying that “we must have an environment in which all scientists, including those from previously underrepresented groups, have an equal chance to excel”.
Much of the work so far has been to establish the programme and begin to embed it within the RS’s work. An initial scoping study has been carried out to identify existing data on the diversity of the scientific workforce and knowledge gaps that need to be filled. As part of this work, the programme is exploring the possibility of joining up existing datasets to reveal long-term trends, which may indicate whether the suggestion of some commentators – that it is ‘just a matter of time’ before equality will come about in science anyway – is true (I would propose that it certainly won’t any time soon, without more significant intervention).
A consultation and engagement conference held at the end of March also provided vital feedback from the scientific community, identifying the barriers and issues people working in the field experience. Areas including careers guidance, career trajectories, improving awareness of STEM careers, the importance of role models and widening Athena SWAN were suggested and will be used to shape the RS programme’s work. Further consultation and a large scale policy study this summer will also investigate whether the diversity issues in science are replicated in other sectors and help identify evidence to make a ‘business case’ for improving diversity. This is an increasing focus in Europe too, as the recent Gendera conference brought to light.
Consideration will also be given to different measures of ‘excellence’ within science, as women are particularly affected by the challenge of maintaining a reputation through publications. This is due to factors including maternity leave and the potential loss of association with a publication record if names are changed in marriage.
The programme will focus initially on the academic sector but, building on Sarah’s previous experience working on the Athena SWAN Charter, it is hoped the RS programme will collaborate with the Charter to broaden its scope beyond universities to pilot work in research institutes and, perhaps in the future, industry. This will also help any best practices from industry be absorbed more widely. Unilever, for example, drew praise at the 2011 European Gender Summit for its active approach to diversity.
Of course, in addition to reaching out to pursue diversity externally, the RS must address the significant gender imbalance within its own Fellowship which, in the last 10 years, has elected only 43 women as Fellows out of a total of 438 (at the Biochemical Society, we acknowledge a similar problem with our awards, which we are working to address). Although low, this is an improvement compared to previous decades and now with the significant support of Sir Paul, Sarah feels progress will be made faster. A major barrier to overcome is the fact that Fellows are elected based on nominations by existing Fellows, which means the demographic is likely to perpetuate without interventions.
Sarah suggested that Learned Societies can help the RS programme, and more broadly make progress with addressing diversity issues, by participating in satellite expert groups which the programme is hoping to establish and informing Sarah of their own diversity initiatives, or providing examples of role models and case studies. There may also be the opportunity to work collaboratively, to run joint mentoring schemes for example, and the RS may provide some funding for this. This is definitely worth keeping an eye out for.
More details of the RS’s work on equality and diversity are available on their website. Our thanks again to Sarah for giving such an interesting presentation, which is available here, and for dealing with all of our questions, especially the toughies from me!
The original version of this post appeared on the British Ecological Society’s Ecology and Policy Blog
As a whole, UK businesses invest less in research and development than their major international competitors, and there is more that the Government can do to address this disparity. That was the message from Beck Smith, Assistant Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), addressing yesterday’s meeting of the Policy Lunchbox network. Beck provided a fascinating overview of an area of policy that members of the Biochemical Society and British Ecological Society (partners in organising Policy Lunchbox) may know little about but, Beck made clear, should familiarise ourselves with given the vital importance of support from business to the health of the science base in the UK.
The previous Labour Government stated its aim to increase the overall investment in research and development (R&D) from all sources to 2.5% of GDP by 2014, although the current Government doesn’t intend to adopt national targets. In any case, at present, we stand at just 1.8% of GDP being invested; indicating the significant distance that remains for us to catch up with other ‘G7′ countries. Given that the UK Government is committed to tackling the budget deficit and therefore tightening spending, the importance of leveraging other sources for investment in R&D is clear. At the moment, however, the UK is third from bottom amongst the G7 group (ahead of Canada, just, and Italy) in terms of business spend on R&D. In 2009, the 1000 UK companies that invested the most in R&D spent a total of £25.3bn, down 0.6% on the previous year. So what can the Government do to address this potential downward trend?
First, Beck stressed, we need to understand why business and industry aren’t investing as much in R&D in the UK as it could do. Beck outlined research suggesting that one way this can be explained is as a combination of three factors, which collectively can be called ‘market failure’:
1. ‘Spillover rationale’: the suggestion that innovators find it difficult to appropriate all returns from their innovations. For example, the inventor of the first personal computer will have seen others move in to develop this technology and will now occupy a crowded space. This disincentiveses innovation. The Government can address this through means that allow companies to keep more of the benefits of their investments, for example through tax breaks such as the R&D tax credit.
2. Coordination failure: broadly speaking, difficulties encountered by groups of individuals or firms in acting collectively. There may be a failure of businesses to network sufficiently with organisations conducting research (or vice versa) that may be of benefit to them. This could be alleviated by the facilitation of partnerships between industry and universities.
3. Information failure: Differences in the information available to both parties prevent transactions from taking place. This argument suggests, for example, that businesses seeking financial support or partners for R&D projects simply don’t know where to find the necessary information to do so.
Beck suggested that there are a number of levers that Government could use to address these market failures – thereby encouraging greater support from business and industry for science in the UK – through focusing on the following areas:
1. Skills: Universities report that many students entering courses from A-levels require remedial lessons in, for example, mathematics and experimental design, in order to perform. Furthermore, industries have complained that they need to give new graduates from universities additional training before they are competent in their jobs. There have also been reports from industry surveys that there are a shortage of graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to fill posts. Alongside addressing school and university tuition there therefore appears a need to raise the profile of careers in science amongst young people (such as through the STEM Ambassadors programme).
Recent amendments to immigration requirements in the UK may also have sent a negative message to qualified STEM graduates from overseas – those who may be considering further study and research in the UK – regarding the UK’s reputation as a good place to pursue a scientific career. Although the Government has taken steps to address these issues for STEM graduates, these negative perceptions may take some time to dispel.
2. Financial environment: tax-breaks such as the ‘patent box’ (a corporation tax cut of 10% on all profits attributed to patents) could create a favourable environment for companies to invest in R&D. Beck also highlighted the positive role that ‘challenge prizes’, such as the $10 billion Ansari X Prize, can play in incentivising investment and scientific progress. Since the launch of the X Prize, to reward the development of the first viable craft for unmanned space flight, it is estimated that there has been an additional $100 billion of investment in this area of study.
3. Knowledge flow: the Government could amend the Research Excellence Framework, for example to make it easier for universities to employ those who have worked in industry. When budgets are cut within industry, Beck suggested, one of the first areas of investment to be cut is the travel and meetings budget. Employees therefore decrease their network at a time when this needs to be expanding. Facilitating the flow of information between researchers in academia and in industry can help to address this.
4. A long-term, cross-party strategy for science in the UK would also be very welcome.
Beck highlighted recent developments from Government which have gone some way to address the points raised. For example, an annual £250,000 prize fund has been announced (orders of magnitude less than the X Prize but nonetheless a step in the right direction), whilst the Government is pressing ahead with plans for research hubs to link business and academia (so called ‘Catapult Centres’, previously known as ‘Technology Innovation Centres’) to aid commercialisation. However, there are convincing arguments for the state to do much more; such as those recently presented in a work by Mariana Mazzucato called ‘The Entrepreneurial State’.
Speaking about the publication on yesterday’s Today Programme, in the document and online, Ms Mazzucato argues for public policy to be bold and courageous, stepping in to fund areas that the private sector has no interest in, as well as putting in place mechanisms to reap greater returns for itself for doing so. As an example, the United States supported the development of the internet by pouring huge amounts of money into the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which undertook a significant amount of the research underpinning the formation of what is now known as Silicon Valley. The private sector, Mariana suggests, has a reputation of coming into areas of research 15–20 years after a large amount of state investment. It cannot therefore be seen as the answer to addressing deficits in state funding for science and innovation (although it is clearly complementary); the Government must find innovative ways of funding large-scale investment in the science base in this country if we want to see the emergence of another Google in the UK, for example.
Policy Lunchbox is a network for Policy Officers and others working in learned societies and the third sector. It is run jointly by the British Ecological Society and Biochemical Society. See our webpage for details of forthcoming events. The next event will be on how to get the most from party conferences.
The original version of this post appeared on the British Ecological Society’s Ecology and Policy Blog.
The Biochemical Society, together with the British Ecological Society, hosted another successful Policy Lunchbox at Charles Darwin House yesterday. The guest speaker was Dr David Bott, Director of Innovation Programmes at the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), who delivered an engaging talk on the process of turning innovative ideas into real products and services. David identified a number of barriers to this progression and outlined how the TSB is working to address them. His presentation (MS Powerpoint) can be downloaded from the Policy Lunchbox listings page.
One of the biggest issues is the significant risk involved in pursuing innovative ideas, as well as a lack of long-term support for innovative projects due to a demand for immediate returns on investments. David highlighted that people need to be educated better about risk to help change these attitudes, and we also heard that there is also a lack of long-term political planning. The UK Government does not harness its considerable market influence, which has the potential to drive innovation in its suppliers through forward-thinking procurement and regulation, alongside tax breaks to encourage investment in certain technologies, he said. Since its creation, the TSB has developed a ‘toolbox’ of solutions to these barriers including providing coherent, long-term support to those involved in innovation and encouraging knowledge exchange, for example by hosting ‘Missions’ to introduce innovators to potential competitors, funders and collaborators. They have also created _connect, an online social network for innovators which aims to ‘match’ people with similar interests.
David set out how the TSB’s budget is worked out, highlighting sustainability as a specific, dedicated programme which underpins all of the board’s work, despite a proportionally small allocation. The TSB works across a huge range of different areas – see slide 5 of David’s presentation, which shows the proportion of the budget spent in each – with the recently monikered Catapults being allocated around 20% of this. These include the new Cell Therapy Catapult, as the TSB looks to take advantage of an industry which they expect to be worth £3.1billion by 2014. Of around 160 employees at the TSB, the core are made up of individuals who trained as scientists but also have business and industrial experience. This experience is essential as each industry advances at different speeds, which needs to be understood.
Whilst healthcare and the biosciences are strategically important areas for the TSB, one area that represents a key theme throughout their work is the environment. The need to double food production by 2050 will require significant innovation in agriculture, whilst increasing energy production without worsening damage to the environment will require novel design and planning. In response to this energy challenge, one of the Catapults will focus on Offshore Renewable Energy, and the TSB is already contributing to innovative environmental projects elsewhere. A Demonstrator Project (designed to encourage further innovation in the sector) tested consumer responses to newly introduced electric cars; measuring their habits, attitudes and opinions of the vehicles when using them for a year. Another scheme – Retrofit for the Future – used innovative technologies to adapt 118 social houses to reduce their carbon emissions by 80% and found significant energy and money savings for the residents.
With the Business Secretary Vince Cable MP announcing a further Catapult Centre yesterday and a range of funding opportunities and events planned for the new year, the TSB’s valuable work in driving innovation is set to continue. Importantly though, David acknowleged that without investment in the research base, there wouldn’t be anything to commercialise.
David Bott’s presentation at the Policy Lunchbox was well received by all the attendees and led to some very interesting discussion afterwards. We would like to thank David Bott for his participation, and everyone who attended. The TSB report ‘Concept to Commercialisation’, which discusses the work of the TSB further is available online.
The next Policy Lunchbox event on 6th March will see Beck Smith, Assistant Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, discuss ‘How can the Government incentivise private sector investment in research and development?’ This event is fully booked, but to join the waiting list you can contact me at the Biochemical Society.
This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
The Biochemical Society will welcome Beck Smith, Assistant Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), to speak at Policy Lunchbox on 6 March. Beck was Head of Policy at the Society for several years, before moving on to her exciting new venture at CaSE in September last year.
Spaces are going fast, but if you would like to attend please email me at James.Lush@biochemistry.org
If you’d like to be first to find out about the latest Policy Lunchbox events, please join the mailing list here.
Policy Lunchbox is a joint initiative with the British Ecological Society.
This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
Policy Lunchbox was privileged on Friday to host the first presentation on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ (BIS) new Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth since its launch last Thursday. Grant Peggie, Head of Innovation and Investment at BIS, gave a run down of the key points to the assembled members of the Policy Lunchbox community over mince pies and mulled wine. Here’s a summary of what he had to say.
Whilst the UK is host to world class researchers and punches above its weight in terms of pure research output, we are not as good at encouraging and developing strategic partnerships with the rest of the ‘innovation ecosystem’ – compared to near neighbours such as France, Germany and Sweden, and also other countries like the USA, said Grant. As well as places where research takes place, business, finance and bodies such as standards offices must all work together to support ‘innovation for growth’. Grant also emphasised that policy makers need to understand that it is important for innovation to take place in all sectors – not just in traditional areas like high-tech industry – including fields like utilities and construction.
The Strategy document sets out medium and long term mechanisms through which the government intends to support innovation for growth, having identified it as something we need to exploit. The timescale (as laid out in a section at the end of the document) for instigating all the projects goes no further than 2015, as the government has been unwilling to commit to longer term plans during this lasting period of austerity. However, Grant was reassuring when questioned about short-termism, stating that the announced Technology Strategy Board (TSB) focus areas – such as graphene development – would have lasting legacies. For example, the Graphene Global Research and Innovation Hub (possibly to be established in Manchester, although the location decision rests with the TSB and Research Councils in accordance with the Haldane principle) should be operational within four years, by which time some of the other policies laid out in the document should help support its long-term activity. The Government has committed £50m to graphene research through the spending review period and has pinned hopes on profitable applications being developed in the UK.
On the other strategic areas highlighted, we heard that the location of a new ‘Cell Therapy Catapult Centre’ (the less said about this moniker the better) in London would be decided next year, although there was pressure to land it in East London. This will also be the home of the Open Data Institute, to be founded in Shoreditch and led by Professor Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee. People will notice that this isn’t actually a new announcement, and indeed Grant admitted that not much of the chapter from which this announcement and several others can be found (entitled ‘Knowledge and Innovation’) is actually new, but sets out what the Government has committed to since this spring/summer. How the Institute will fit in with the opening up of NHS data announced by David Cameron as part of the new Strategy for UK Life Sciences remains to be seen. The datasets to be prioritised have been named as transport, weather and health.
Concerning the Research Councils, changes are afoot. Multi-institutional bids for funding will be allowed according to a framework to be published in February, providing new opportunities for consortia such as the N8 group (the Universities of Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York) to apply for funding together. Furthermore, groups such as charities not based within Universities will also be able to apply for funding. This means that there will be more funding streams, although there won’t be more money up for grabs. Particularly regarding the new rules on consortia, this could lead to very large funding awards being made, with one potential knock-on effect being the restriction of traditional award recipients even further – in what are already straitened times. Grant agreed that this was a risk, although this policy did come out of consultation with universities. Another outcome could be on the institutional and geographical spread of awards, which are already a contentious issue. On the other side, it is hoped that larger, consortia based funding could lead to more matched funding bids from pharmaceutical companies. These changes will certainly need to be follow closely next year. The Research Councils have also agreed to invest £2 million in the development of a UK ‘Gateway to Research’. Plans remain sketchy, but should allow open access to Research Council funded research data and other information by 2013. The scheme aims to be flexible and allow for non-Research Council research to be catalogued here too. This has the potential to be a really exciting and useful resource – if they get it right regarding the usability of data – especially for publicising research which could be commercialised. Smaller companies without extensive access to horizon-scanning resources could have greatly improved access and more business relationships may arise.
The bottom line, what else is new, and forthcoming work
In total, according to BIS figures, we heard that £610 million has been committed to capital in science since January. The headline announcements new to this Statement are highlighted in the BIS press release. However, as already alluded to, there is no ’10 year plan’ or similar long-term vision as the science community would like to see, representing a real long-term commitment to science as a driver of growth. We may expect reassessments to be made towards the end of the spending review period (ending in 2015).
Some of the other plans we received a run-down of are:
- The Economics Paper published alongside the main strategy document focuses on innovation (and is the first to do so since the mid ‘90s) and Grant revealed that a separate analysis of science would be published next year.
- As well as Cell Therapy, the other Catapult Centres will be High Value Manufacturing and Offshore Renewable Energy, with three more to be confirmed.
- The previously announced Biomedical Catalyst Fund will total £180 million, half each from the TSB and the Medical Research Council (MRC). This fund will be focussed on commercial medicine and proof of concept research. The TSB investment was newly announced in the Strategy for UK Life Sciences released earlier in the week.
- There will be an extra £75 million for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) through the resurrected Smart scheme – to come from the TSB – as first announced in the Autumn Statement. The TSB will also implement a new innovation voucher programme to support collaboration between SMEs and external knowledge providers. The first vouchers will be awarded next year.
- The Launchpad initiative will be extended – providing intensive support for specific sectoral clusters in chosen locations, with the aim of attracting follow-up ‘angel investment’. Grant hinted that a life science Launchpad was being considered for the Scottish central belt.
- The Red Tape Challenge will be extended, investigating the bureaucratic barriers that inhibit innovation – including those set by government. Further challenges identified are the barriers posed by procurement methods.
- Tax credits to incentivise research and development in the UK will be introduced in Budget 2013.
- The TSB will gain more staff to make sure we can leverage as much EU funding as possible in the future.
- We are going to embark on a joint research agreement with China, funding bi-lateral projects. Joint research calls with the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology are expected during 2012.
The delivery plan makes it clear that all the policies must be followed through, although the mechanisms have not yet been decided.
Naturally, Grant wanted to highlight all the positives of the Strategy, but as he said, having RCUK and the CBI saying good things is a good sign that they seem to have hit several right notes. And, whilst the Strategy certainly emphasises innovation rather than research, Grant explained that the rationale for this was two-fold: firstly that there was no desire to “throw research up in the air again”; and secondly that whilst research is a vital strength of the UK, innovation is in greater need of attention, particularly concerning commercial exploitation.
Last word – still no commitment on postgraduates
Grant was candid when asked about the lack of focus on post-graduates in recent government publications, acknowledging this point but regrettably not revealing any firm intention for anything to be done. However, he reported strong awareness that this is a live issue, citing the influence of Twitter as a significant pressure for a concerted effort from BIS in this area. The strategy is also noticably silent on visa restrictions for talented science graduates.
Innovation and Research Strategy, and Economics Paper: http://www.bis.gov.uk/innovatingforgrowth
Strategy for UK Life Sciences: http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/innovation/docs/s/11-1429-strategy-for-uk-life-sciences
Autumn Statement: http://cdn.hm-treasury.gov.uk/autumn_statement.pdf
This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
Science is an important tool to build bridges between nations and a great asset for the UK in cultural diplomacy. So said Lloyd Anderson, Director of Science at the British Council, when he joined the Policy Lunchbox network earlier this week to discuss how his organisation uses science to promote the UK overseas.
For a detailed event report, please visit the British Ecological Society’s Ecology and Policy blog, written by the BES’ Policy Manager Ceri Margerison.
This blog post was written by Beck Smith, the Biochemical Society’s Head of Policy.
This post is based on a presentation given by Kaitlin Thaney to Policy Lunchbox on Wednesday 3 August 2011. It was written by Katya-yani Vyas, an MSc Science Communication student at Imperial College London who is currently undertaking an internship at the Campaign for Science and Engineering.
The Web has revolutionised the way we think about science, from search to working with data and how we interact/collaborate. But for all of the advances made, we’re not nearly as far along as we could be. Digital Science, a new technology company out of Macmillan Publishers (parent company to Nature )was launched in December 2010 provide tools and technology to make research and research administration more efficient – from productivity tools for researchers to tools for funders and advances in text mining technologies.
Last week, the Biochemical Society and British Ecological Society hosted a ‘Policy Lunchbox’ event with Digital Science’s Kaitlin Thaney, exploring the future of digital research. Kaitlin gave an informative and interesting talk on why ‘digital science’ is necessary, the complicated relationship between research and technology, and the main areas to consider in this space. In a digital age, science is well-placed to capitalise on new technology; but unfortunately, as Kaitlin said, gaps still exist.
By combining software development, product design and research and using different avenues of expertise, ranging from academia to established business, Digital Science is enhancing collaboration in a novel and progressive way. The company spun out of Nature Publishing Group as Macmillan’s first non-content oriented business in December 2010, a software company at its core developing tools and technology to make research more efficient. They operate off a hybrid model, developing tools in house as well as investing in other start-ups and tool providers who are already pushing the ball forward and serving as more of an incubator for their businesses and products.
So, how is this being achieved? The approach is very clearly tailored towards researchers, providing the tools that can streamline the search process but also making sure that reliance on machines is taken into account as well as the decision-makers and funders that influence research and incentives. Trawling through the huge amount of information is time-consuming, filtering and refining equally so. Digital Science is about putting together a software infrastructure that compliments the scientific process – the goal to enable better science and research management, so that more efficient research can be done with smarter use of technology.
Kaitlin was very clear that this is not about ‘reinventing the wheel’ but rather often collaborating with developers and facilitating innovation, as well as building complimentary tools. Digital Science’s existing partnership network reflects this. The example of SureChem – a cheminformatics company that Digital Science bought in 2010, and the basis of the Digital Science’s text mining division, illustrates this – utilising new ideas and tools to minimise uncertainty in searching for chemical compounds in patent literature. Pointing out that searching for a particular chemical compound can often be exasperating; Kaitlin demonstrated how results are often ambiguous and therefore not conducive to efficient research. SureChem allows users to browse through patent literature by drawing particular chemical structures – the way that chemists think – as well as the often long and convoluted chemical names, making it much easier for a scientist to identify exactly what they need in a way that patent databases and Google searches cannot. It helps streamline the process.
This is a starting point for dealing with published information online – the products of what is frequently a long and arduous research route. This process, laboratory work and analysis, relies on much more than formal reports and patents. From excel spreadsheets to lab mice, the amount of information circulating with a laboratory is staggering and the notion of organising it is intimidating. Kaitlin describes how another of Digital Science’s commercial partners, BioData, is working towards providing a centralised system that can manage all the vital data and information in a laboratory. Providing a routine organised structure at laboratory level is recognition that maximising efficiency means better coordination from the start.
These are the processes and the products; measuring their impact and evaluating performance comes next and is particularly topical in our current economic climate. Kaitlin suggests that the latter – the information needed for research administrators and funders – calls for a different sort of data capture. From citation counts and metrics that hinge on journal impact factors to h-index and Eigenfactors, the systems are convoluted and imperfect but ultimately necessary. Digital science is working toward improving the data both within the company and through collaboration with Symplectic who have launched a product called ‘Elements’ to aid researchers in assessing the research output of their institutions. It is a difficult task especially as its background is the subject of much controversy but providing a more comprehensive picture is a promising approach. Their goal is to help clear up some of the ambiguity that currently exists when it comes to research output, from enabling administrators to have better information at their fingertips on what research is taking place at their institutions, to fulfilling research assessment needs and with any luck – influencing the incentives discussion.
The digital age has created new opportunities for the way we do scientific research – from how we manage our labs and analyse data, to how we link information and make funding decisions. Digital Science is working to better bridge the existing gaps between science and technology, exploiting the opportunities with state of the art software tools.
For more on Digital Science, visit http://digital-science.com. Kaitlin’s talk is also available online at http://www.slideshare.net/kaythaney/policy-lunchbox-digital-science. You can also follow Kaitlin on Twitter.
This blog post was written by Beck Smith, the Biochemical Society’s Head of Policy.
On Wednesday 2nd March Dr Steven Hill, Head of Research Council UK’s (RCUK) Strategy Unit gave a presentation to Policy Lunchbox on ‘RCUK strategy post-CSR’. Steven has kindly allowed us to make his powerpoint slides (PDF) available online which provide an excellent overview of his presentation, including some useful diagrams illustrating both institutional and regional concentrations of funding.
The discussion during his presentation raised some interesting (but not necessarily all new) points which are shared below.
On science funding:
- The ring fence is around resource funding, which will prevent the shuffling of monies towards capital expenditure. There is the potential (and hope) for an increase in capital budget in future budgets (this sentiment was echoed in a recent Science and Technology Committee evidence session with the Heads of the Research Councils).
- The ‘spikes’ (areas of concentration) on the funding landscape are issues which have been singled out as ‘societal challenges’ and are strongly multidisciplinary, reinforcing the message that collaboration will be key to securing funding.
- Grant success rates are dropping despite rising budgets (in previous years) and the potential impact of constricting budgets is concerning. The need for mechanisms to control and manage demand is increasing. It is feared that in the face of so many applications, peer review becomes ‘less and less robust and more like a lottery’.
On Higher Education Institutions:
- The diagram in the PowerPoint on institutional concentration (slide 19) is based on the top 30 Institutions only. Internal work in RCUK has suggested that the constraints on budget are unlikely to change significantly the pattern of institutional or regional concentration of funding.
- Roberts money (also known as the Skills Training Development Fund) is finishing in its present ring-fenced form, but this does not mean financial support for this agenda has finished. Money for these activities will now be managed by Universities directly through fees for postgraduate research students and through the full economic cost elements in research grants.
- It’s important that Technology and Innovation Centres are not seen as the magic bullet for innovation, they’re one component of a much wider agenda. Steven shared that he had heard them described as ‘the tungsten tip on the bullet of impact generation in the UK’.
On science post this CSR-period:
- In considering UK science post 2014, Steven makes the case that UK science needs to be seen in a more global context. This would require a shift away from the current ‘UK science for the UK’s national benefit socially and economically’. Using Pfizer as an example in which one companies change in focus and subsequent global distribution will have ramifications in the UK at a local level, he suggests that we need to start thinking beyond our borders towards a collaborative global science agenda.
Policy Lunchbox is a joint initiative organised by the Biochemical Society and the British Ecological Society. It aims to bring together science policy officers with key decision makes and influencers to discuss current issues, over lunch. You can sign up to our mailing list through the Policy Lunchbox webpage.