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We need funders, not sponsors, says Nurse

Funding agency initiatives to “shape or sponsor” research could lead to the funding of lower-quality work, Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, has said.

Speaking at the 351st anniversary of the Royal Society on 30 November, Nurse discussed how prescriptive funders should be in determining which research areas should be supported.

In December 2010, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council announced it wanted to be a sponsor rather than a funder of research, as stated in its delivery plan.

The council has since faced vocal opposition to its funding exercise, “Shaping Capability”, which outlines which areas it will grow, maintain, and reduce based on “national importance” as well as excellence.

Nurse warned of “well intentioned” sponsoring initiatives. In adopting such approaches, he said, funding agencies risk funding low-quality work for two reasons.

Firstly, he said, separating decisions from researchers and their projects could attract less creative scientists who might be more prone to follow the money. Secondly, committees that identified which areas were important usually consisted of people who were no longer active researchers.

“Such committees are prone to coming up with the rather obvious and being behind the cutting edge,” he said. “Better judgements are more likely to be made by the scientists actually carrying out specific areas of research who are much closer to the research problem being pursued.”

Therefore, he said, funders should put more trust in researchers than committees. He highlighted the responsive mode scheme for research funding as an “effective way” of delivering scientific knowledge.

Nurse also suggested that a better way to support individual research areas would be to inspire researchers to work in that area rather than to ring-fence resources.

On the difficulty of commercialising research, Nurse referred to the gap between knowledge and commercialisation as the “valley of death”.

He told the meeting: “Usually the focus of discussion is on providing research support to bridge that gap but attention also needs to be paid to pushing the bridgeheads further out into the valley.

“To rush into translation runs the risk of becoming lost in translation. A firmer bridgehead needs to be built involving a more extended and secure knowledge base in the area of interest before attempting to pass over the valley of death.

“Similarly, the bridgehead on the other side needs to be extended out, with more investment from industry in research aimed at capturing new knowledge from the other side of the valley,” he warned.

Nurse said he had hoped not to mention research impact, but criticised making “crude metrical applications of impact” a compulsory part of research funding decisions and assessments.

“The potential impact of research should be clearly identified if it makes sense to do so, but often it does not make any sense to do so.

“To demand a statement in every research proposal or assessment about impact for societal or economic benefit will often simply result in unhelpful flights of fantasy of no value,” he said.