July 25, 2008

How to spend a £400 million Science budget

A thought experiment with lots of money

The Queens Ahead by canonsnapperThe Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the United Kingdom’s funding agency for academic research and training in the non-clinical life sciences. It supports a total of around 1600 scientists and 2000 research students in universities and institutes in the UK. The head of our laboratory, Douglas Kell, has recently been appointed Chief Executive of the BBSRC [1]. Congratulations Doug, we wish you the very best in your new job. Now, according to bbsrc.ac.uk, their annual budget is a cool £400 million (just short of $800 million or €500 million). This has left me wondering, how would you spend a £400 million Science budget for the life sciences? For the purposes of this article, imagine it was you that had been put in charge of said budget, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown (texture like sun) had given you, yes YOU, a big bag of cash to distribute as you see fit. A mouth-watering prospect, I think you’ll agree. Here, is my personal opinion of how, in my dreams, I would spend the money.

Hiring and Firing Scientists

Ultimately, funding agencies like the BBSRC get to “hire and fire” scientists and the laboratories they work in, based on their own selection and rejection criteria. Although they don’t have the power to make established Scientists redundant, they can squeeze their funding. So, here is who I would be hiring and firing if, in my fantasy world, I was responsible for the budget:

You’re Fired!

Just like Sir Alan Sugar on the UK television show The Apprentice, we should be “firing” weaker candidates and giving them less BBSRC funding. Here is who I would be firing:

  1. Molecular Biology, 1953 to 2008, Rest In Peace At the top of my ‘fired’ list is molecular biology. Once upon a time, molecular biology was at the frontier of human knowledge, but its time has come and gone. While the techniques it has produced are invaluable and here to stay, PCR and blotting etc, the reductionist DNA mania mindset has been harmful to longer term advances in Biology and Biotechnology generally. We need more big-picture quantitative Science (call it systems biology if you like, see below), and less of the qualitative “study one gene or one protein” that has been common in the past. Molecular Biology, you are fired!
  2. Unrepeatable experiments. This shouldn’t be allowed, whether they are wet lab or dry lab experiments, it shouldn’t be acceptable to publish unrepeatable experiments. How you actually stop people doing this is a challenging problem. The same goes for disposable software [2,3]. Biology and Biotechnology needs sustainable long-term infrastructure that is solid and dependable, not flaky custom half-baked experiments and solutions that come and go like teenage fashion fads. Dodgy experiments, you are fired.
  3. Closed Access publishing. That £400 million pot of money has come directly from the hard earned wages in the British taxpayers pocket. The general public, having paid for all that research, should have access to ALL the primary data, not just the second-hand press releases and mainstream media reports. Primary data and journal publications shouldn’t disappear behind some Scientific publishers pay-wall. Closed Access publishing, you are fired.

You’re Hired!

When we’ve finished firing, we should be “hiring” and giving more BBSRC funding to…

  1. Young scientists. I would say that wouldn’t I? I am a young scientist. But seriously, todays young scientists, before and after their PhDs, are tomorrows leaders and Professors. Currently the BBSRC offers up to 10 David Phillips fellowships, which are a bit of a golden handshake for “World class early career scientists”. These prestigious fellowships are obviously important, because they are over-subscribed with around twenty applicants for each single award available. So why are there only ten awarded each year? If talented young scientists fail to get these fellowships, they will move abroad. How will Britain be competitive in Global Science in twenty or thirty years time if all its young Scientists have permanently moved abroad to pursue their careers? The BBSRC should be awarding hundreds not tens of these fellowships, to encourage home grown talent to develop their careers close to their families and friends in the UK. Ambitious young Scientist with fresh ideas? You’re Hired.
  2. BIO- and CHEM- informatics research and development. By which I mean cheminformatics, bioinformatics and whatever-o-informatics (this is a fantasy remember, in my own selfish self-interest). I’m not talking about the the kind of “my algorithm is 2% better / cheaper / faster than yours” but the kind of bold and innovative information management, that makes new biological and chemical insights into massive data sets. Informatics needs to be tightly integrated with wet lab experiments because “dry” laboratory informatics in silico can be pretty pointless when it gets divorced from biological problems in vivo and in vitro. Likewise, wet laboratory work has much to learn from dry lab insights. Better integrated informatics, with emphasis on the BIO and CHEM? You are hired.
  3. The Web of Science. It is deeply ironic that the Web was invented by a Scientist, for use by Scientists in a laboratory, yet 18 years later, we’re not even close to exploiting the full power of the Web to organise, share, manage, communicate and discuss scientific experiments and their results. Blogs, wikis, Web 2.0, Web Ontologies, Web services, Workflows on the Web, Web accessible citation and publication databases, let us boldly experiment with and build the future of the Web. As a founding father of the internet, Vint Cerf, puts it “It’s easy to forget just how far the internet still has to go“. In many ways the Web embodies what Science is all about, why are scientists so slow to adopt this (cough) “new” technology? The Web of Science? You are hired.
  4. Databases and Ontologies. We don’t need more of these (thank you very much), we need less but they need to be much better integrated, so that we can understand what the hell all the bloody data actually mean. Less is definitely more in this case, that sounds easy, but it is mind-bendingly hard and challenging problem which we need to work on and invest in. Peer-reviewed knowledge-bases and ontologies are big part of the solution, see the OBO Foundry for a leading example. More work on fewer, but much better, databases and ontologies is what I would fund. High quality digital knowledge-bases? You are hired.
  5. Open Access Publishing. I don’t care too much if it is green or gold (see comments below). We need Open Access publishing NOW! (Bangs the table, Bob-Geldof-at-Live-Aid style). Well actually we needed Open Access fifty years ago before all these scientific publishers started taking control. Free access, via authors depositing their articles in PubMedCentral, is a good step forward, but ultimately, I want urgently need FULL Open Access so that unrestricted text-mining can take place on large public repositories. While the BBSRC encourages its funded scientists to publish in Open Access journals and self-archive papers in PubMedCentral, at the time of writing it does not currently enforce this enough, as far as I know. The BBSRC should follow the NIH, and actually enforce open access publishing. Open Access? You are hired.

There I think I’m done self-indulgently fantasy power-tripping now, back to reality. It’s a good job important decisions about science funding are taken by experienced people, rather than humble postdocs like me. Still, the “thought experiment” of fantasy science funding was an enlightening exercise. What did we learn?

  • Power corrupts, fantasy power corrupts fantastically, e.g.
  • Funders are humans too. Funding for scientists is dished out by humans, sometimes they make good decisions, other times they make mistakes.

Of course, your mileage may vary, so if YOU controlled a £400 million Science budget, how would YOU spend the money? Now where did I put those grant application forms?


  1. John Denham MP has announced the appointment of Professor Douglas Kell as the next Chief Executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Biochemist e-volution, Society news, 2008-07-08
  2. Stella Veretnik, J. Lynn Fink and Philip E. Bourne (2008).Computational biology resources lack persistence and usability. PLoS Computational Biology, 4(7). pubmed/18636105, DOI:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000136
  3. Jonathan D. Wren (2008). URL decay in MEDLINE – a 4-year follow-up study. Bioinformatics 24(11): 1381-1385, DOI:10.1093/bioinformatics/btn127, pubmed/18413326
  4. The Stranglers (1982). Gordon Golden Brown, texture like sun
  5. BBSRC are already backing Systems Biology in see Systems Biology Centres and Systems Biology at the BBSRC.

CC-licensed picture of Queen Elizabeth’s head on a £20 bank note from canonsnapper , picture of Alan Sugar’s firing finger from jovike

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    To say “I don’t care too much if it is green or gold. We need Open Access publishing now” is to say “I don’t care too much if it is green or gold. We need gold now.” Gold OA is OA journal publishing. Green OA is the self-archiving, in OA repositories, of articles published in non-OA journals. The NIH mandates Green OA not Gold OA. Funders (and institutions) cannot, should not, and need not mandate where researchers publish — just that they must make their articles OA, regardless of where they publish them, through green OA self-archiving. BBSRC too: “all projects funded at BBSRC-sponsored institutes and starting from 1 October 2006, BBSRC will require a copy of any resulting published journal article or conference proceedings to be deposited, at the earliest opportunity, in an appropriate e-print repository, wherever such a repository is available.”

    Comment by Stevan Harnad — July 25, 2008 @ 3:12 pm | Reply

  2. The BBSRC has required open access for all BBSRC-funded research since October 1, 2006.

    See the policy announcement from June 2006,

    I don’t know how effectively the policy has been implemented. If you find out, I hope you’ll blog what you find.


    Comment by Peter Suber — July 25, 2008 @ 3:29 pm | Reply

  3. I don’t know a great deal about biology, but I completely agree with you on firing closed access publications. I believe most, if not all, of the research councils in the UK have some sort of pro-open access policy, as does the Wellcome Trust – which commissioned two reports into the area that are well worth a read. Alas, the policies aren’t really enforced at all – I’ve read 150+ papers in various degrees of relatedness to my research and almost every one (with the exception of a few which were ‘freebies’ offered by closed access journals) required me to prove that I/the University had purchased an extremely expensive subscription. Despite the buzz around open access, it still hasn’t taken off yet, in the sciences or the humanities.

    Comment by Paul — July 26, 2008 @ 11:14 am | Reply

  4. @Stevan thanks for your comments, I didn’t fully appreciate the difference between green and gold open access.

    @Peter Hopefully we can find out who is responsible for policing self-archiving in pubmedcentral for BBSRC funded research, I’ll blog it if I find out

    @Paul Open Access is taking off in the life sciences, http://www.biomedcentral.com is having lots of success with several of its journals, they automatically deposit author articles in public repositories like http://www.PubMedCentral.gov too – it this is left to the authors, they often tend not to bother (at the moment)

    Comment by Duncan — July 28, 2008 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

  5. BioMedCentral is encouraging – I hadn’t heard of that, hopefully other journals will consider following suit. I guess the University’s institutional repository will be a step forward too – though I suspect I will be long gone by the time it comes to fruition!

    Comment by Paul — July 28, 2008 @ 4:29 pm | Reply

  6. I think you got a bit carried with “I am a young scientist” though

    Comment by Paul D — August 6, 2008 @ 3:16 pm | Reply

  7. Hi Paul, Heh! You cheeky b*gger, you got me there. “Young” is a relative term here, I’m mean young as in newly-qualified-with-phd and younger than “old” professors like Doug…

    Comment by Duncan — August 7, 2008 @ 9:56 am | Reply

  8. @ Paul – you hadn’t heard of BMC? Blimey.

    Hey Duncan,

    Well done for attracting comments from Stevan and Peter.

    See you at the Conference in two weeks and I’ll certainly be supporting your suggestion for the un-conference session.



    Comment by Graham — August 14, 2008 @ 5:48 pm | Reply

  9. Hi Graham, Thanks. Yup, I was pleased to get comments from Peter Suber and Stevan Harnad. Looking forward to the conference, see you there…

    As for Paul Waring, don’t blame him, he’s a computer scientist. They don’t do Biology.

    Comment by Duncan — August 14, 2008 @ 7:13 pm | Reply

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