O'Really?

May 26, 2009

Grants on the Web: Transparent Scientific Funding?

Lord Drayson by DIUSGOVUKAll over the Britain, politicians are getting ready to publish their expenses on the Interweb. Why? Because they are trying to regain their lost credibility, after making some incredibly dodgy and embarrassing expense claims [1-7]. Scandals aside, this is all well and good since this money has come from the UK taxpayers pocket, and politicians are public servants, doing public work which is supposedly in the public good.

Scientists, like politicians, also provide a public service, spending public money, for the public good. Science is public knowledge after all and scientists spend quite a lot of public money. At least £3 billion was spent on scientific research in the UK during 2008 (see Who Funds Science in Britain?) and that was just research, not teaching. Wouldn’t it be great if anyone who was interested could see what all this money had been spent on, who spent it and what the outcomes were?

Thankfully you can already do this for some areas of research. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) which currently spends around £740 million a year on everything from “mathematics to materials science, and from information technology to structural engineering” has a system called Grants on the Web @ gow.epsrc.ac.uk. You can find out who spent the money and how much money was spent since the system was set up, see an EPSRC example here. Some of the original grant proposals are there too, which can be enlightening. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) also has a similar system (called oasis), though it is not as easy to use and link to – see a BBSRC example here. The trouble is, if you can’t easily link to it, it doesn’t get indexed by search engines. If it doesn’t get indexed by search engines, then it’s almost invisible. Fortunately, the BBSRC are working on improving this, with a new system due for release in the autumn of 2009.

Other organisations are putting grant information on the web too. Recently, thanks to the UK’s PubMed Central database you can also see the published results of publicly funded biomedical research. The funders pages at ukpmc.ac.uk/funders give a breakdown of published results from different funding bodies, as described in this article by Robert Kiley of the Wellcome Trust and this one by Alison Henning.

Now not all the research councils seem to publish their grants on the Web in a transparent manner*, and some of those that do, leave lots of room for improvement. But it is still useful to be able to see where some of that public money went and what the outcomes of the research were. More transparent spending of public money like this isn’t just a desirable extra, it should come as standard.

* (It is difficult to find the details of grants awarded by JISC, NERC, MRC and STFC, but please leave a comment below if you know where this information is published. More commentary on this post over at friendfeed.)

[Creative Commons licensed picture of Baron Paul Drayson, currently UK Science Minister from DIUSGOVUK.]

References

  1. The Daily Telegraph (2009) MPs’ expenses: all the gory details from the Daily Telegraph
  2. The Guardian (2009) Grauniad datablog: MP’s expenses as spreadsheet and Free Our Data: Make taxpayers’ data available to them
  3. Wikipedia (2009) MPs’ expenses in wikipedia
  4. BBC News (2009) MPs’ expenses: A triumph of journalism? A week after its opening salvo, the Daily Telegraph is still reaping great benefit from its exclusive expose of MPs’ expenses.
  5. BBC News (2009) Q&A: MP expenses row explained: Revelations in the Daily Telegraph about exactly what MPs have been claiming on expenses has prompted a public outcry and a pledge to reform the “gentlemen’s club” at Westminster
  6. BBC Newsnight (2009) Stephen Fry dismisses MPs’ expenses row, accusing journalists of hypocrisy
  7. The Guardian (2009) Censored version of MPs’ expenses will break the law, Hugh Tomlinson QC warns

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