Ripple effects of science funding

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Funding research supports much more than just great research. Image: asterisk.apod.com

 

The Australian election is looming and promises for funding are being thrown around in all directions including at science. But this money can’t be banked on. Asking for credit with a promise of repayment as soon as 1) Candidate A gets elected and 2) they fulfil their election promises is unlikely to fly. At least not with any reputable broker.

Most of research funding depends on the whims of governments. And if government doesn’t fund research, businesses will. As soon as businesses fund research, however, any results are often deemed biased and dismissed, regardless of how stringently the research was conducted. The conflict of interest cannot be overlooked.

Which points the finger back at the government. Research is in the public interest – it is the public who ultimately benefit from the results after all – and it needs to be funded by independent bodies. Which are ultimately funded by taxes. And nobody likes taxes.

But funding research has many other benefits that are worth the tax. Most obviously it provides jobs for researchers and, being a researcher, this makes me very happy. But also the process of doing research provides employment for many more non-researchers from all areas.

Here are some of the people employed directly or indirectly by research funding.

  1. Finance managers, HR managers, payroll officers – No point getting funding if there’s no way to manage it, nor if there’s no way to get staff and pay them. Basically research doesn’t happen without a solid admin team.
  2. IT gurus – Science, like most other industries, needs IT. Particularly for managing so many different instruments as well as all the data and communications throughout the business. Research grinds to a halt as soon as the network stops working, making on-hand IT staff invaluable.
  3. Equipment suppliers, manufacturers, primary producers – Science needs stuff. LOTS of stuff. From everywhere. This includes glassware, solvents, gloves, little plastic tubes, printer paper and sticky tape. To get all these different items, we need people who supply them. And people to make them in the first place and people to get the raw materials for the manufacturers to make the stuff.
  4. Communications managers – Scientists do good science but few do good talking. Anyone skilled in communications is an essential asset for any research industry to let people know the outcomes of the research and manage any media interest that may come about. Best not to let untrained researchers into that space.
  5. Receptionists, research administrators, managerial assistants – These are the key go-to people for getting things done, organising paperwork, managing meetings and communal resources. Important activities that always take more time than expected. Having staff dedicated to handling this sort of thing allow for more efficient research.
  6. Food providers, including cafes, food vans, supermarkets and fast food chains – OK, this one might be stretching the boundaries, but research like other businesses employ people and people need food. This gives opportunities for local eateries and food manufacturers, particularly those that provide good coffee. The vending machine guy at my work also does a roaring trade alongside the steady stream of charity fundraiser chocolates that are readily available and readily consumed.

Whether it be for applied science projects, as is the focus of the Innovation Boom, or for fundamental science projects that produce the necessary scientific knowledge for the applied projects to actually work, funding research provides community-wide benefits.

This includes employment and income for people across a broad range of industries, not just for scientists, as well as the benefits that come from the results of that research.

It’s win-win-win, really.

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The great research swap

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Transitioning into different research topics is like leaping from Halo to reality. Completely different terrains but some skills are similar. Image credit: forbes.com

 

Changing research topic is a big challenge in research. A PhD is like being completely absorbed in particular online role-playing game where you know all about the allegiances of other players and the strengths and limitations of your character.

And then after the PhD, it’s expected that you side step from your PhD topic into a completely new topic. Much like launching into a whole new game where you don’t know the landscape nor what you have to work with to navigate the terrain. The whole process is disorientating and yet it’s absolutely essential.

Conquering a new world can be exciting and it’s great for boasting a new post doc’s CV. But organisational restructures can also leave experienced researchers with years of research suddenly shelved and a directive to tackle a whole new topic. This is where those that are most flexible in their research will survive.

Luckily there are some skills that are universal for all research topics.

The most obvious is how to conduct research. No matter what the topic, solid experimental design underpins everything in research. These skills are invaluable and can go anywhere. Much like a foldable bicycle.

Secondly, there are enough processes in research that any self-respecting scientist with OCD can use to cope when faced with a new project. Here’s a summary of some of the processes for conquering the new research topic:

  1. Scour the literature and get up to speed with the field. Definitely check out the latest review papers and follow the papers references there.
  2. Learn methods and practice them til confident of reproducible results.
  3. Design some experiments and get that science happening.
  4. Write up a paper. It’s like putting a flag up and staking your claim on the new topic.

One thing to remember is to keep tabs on the former topic just in case the wind changes and the old topic becomes new again. Writing a review paper is great motivation to keep up with the literature in that field. The additional citations that inevitably follow are just a bonus.

The shift in topic is can be invigorating when it’s planned and can be frightening when it isn’t. Happily, the new world can be conquered in a systematic way and, if successful, the skills of project transitions can be added to the list of transferable skills acquired in research.

Of course playing different online RPGs is sure to help as well.

Dancing science

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Dancing is the next level in science communication. Image: nytimes.com

Dancing is not a required skill for studying science. In fact, whole science degrees can be awarded without assessing a single pirouette. And yet recent years have seen a groundswell of people attempting science communication through dance. Can this really be good for science?

Science communication is a growing field with more people talking and writing science than ever before. Explaining complex concepts in short and easy-to-understand formats is an important skill for scientists and some brilliant competitions have been set up, including Fresh Science.

While the idea is to encourage PhD graduates to distil the key messages from their research for a non-expert audience, this can be demoralising for a new PhD graduate. Having years of challenging and detailed research condensed into a three minute presentation is heart breaking.

Can there be another way? Bizarrely, yes. But it’s not necessarily more satisfying.

Instead of explaining your thesis using something practical, like words, there is growing interest in Dance Your Thesis competitions. This takes science communication to the next level. Not only do researchers need writing and speaking skills to do better science, it looks like we’re going to need to be good dancers as well.

I am not a coordinated dancer. Not that I let that stop me, but generally it’s in the public’s best interest to keep such urges behind closed doors. Without any background in formal dance training, I struggle with why anyone would think that dancing a thesis would be a good idea. I wouldn’t even know where to begin with mine. Aside from tap dancing the names of bioactive compounds in Morse code.

And yet the idea is has resonated with people around the world, including Sydney and Munich. Last year’s winner has over 160,000 views on YouTube, which is at least 159,998 views more than my thesis. This idea has merit.

Dancing science may or may not be bringing science to whole new audiences. But it is getting a lot of public interest and it certainly helps scientists think about the bigger picture about what their results mean. And on top of that, it’s a lot of fun.