Home » Open Science » Open Research Funding

Open Research Funding

This is the fourth part part of Peter Cameron‘s trilogy on open science. For the other parts, see Open Publication, Open Data and Open Software. If you would like to leave comments for the author, please leave them here.

Douglas Adams wrote The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a radio series. It was published in book form as a trilogy, but later he added two further parts. At the start of the first part, the Earth is destroyed. Later we learn that it hasn’t really been destroyed, but at the end of the last part it is destroyed again, and we are led to understand that this time is for real. Presumably he didn’t want to write any more.

More modestly, here is the fourth part of my trilogy on open science. It is devoted to the question How do we acknowledge the source of funding for our research?

At first it seems obvious that we should do this. But as ever I believe that things are not so clear-cut.

The majority of my papers have been written either by me alone or as collaborations with colleagues in University positions. Like me, these colleagues had contracts of employment stipulating that they should spend part of their time on research. If I am merely fulfilling my contract by doing research, am I also obligated to say “This research was supported by my salary from the University of Poldavia”?

During one “transparency review” (a mis-named bureaucratic nightmare where academic staff were supposed to say exactly how much of their time was spent on each part of their activity), I asked my then head of department, “If I go to sleep thinking about a problem, and wake up with a solution, how much research have I done?” Every mathematician knows that this is a sensible question, although every university administrator thinks I am just joking by asking it. Indeed, the rules for that particular review specified that the hours we put down should add up to 37.5 per week; the administrators who designed it clearly thought that, like them, academics worked 9 to 5.

The case may be a little different for research grants. Until fairly recently, the purpose of a large research grant was to employ one or more post-doctoral researchers to work on a particular problem. This model was driven by the situation in most of science, where someone has to wash up the equipment, write the lab books, or program the computers. Again, as in so many ways, mathematicians are different.

Ask a mathematician about the purpose of such research grants; you will probably be told three things. First, a post-doc can be an enormously productive part of an academic career, a chance to spread your wings after the sharp focus of doctoral study. It is crucial for the future of our discipline that good researchers can get post-doc positions. Second, although the ideal is a post-doctoral fellowship which puts the researcher in command of her own career, the reality for many is a position as research assistant on a grant. In most of science, this means exactly what it says; but in mathematics, RAs are expected, like postdoctoral fellows, to expand their horizons and work on many things. Some post-docs I have been associated with have done that extremely successfully. (Dima Fon-Der-Flaass, for example, was employed on a grant to do coding theory, but among many other things he did he produced a combinatorial construction for twin trees, showing that these geometric objects were much richer and wilder than previously thought. He also wrote two papers with me quite unrelated to the topic of the grant, one on permutation group bases – where we introduced the class of IBIS groups – and one on a certain permutation of the antichains of a poset and its cycles.) And finally, if we had a decent career structure for post-docs, the lottery of applying for grants to support bright young researchers would not be necessary.

Despite this, it is perhaps not unreasonable for a post-doc to acknowledge her funding sources in her publications. But should the established researchers on the grant have to do likewise?

This is an area where the boundaries have shifted. Now, when you apply for a grant, one of the things you can ask for is money to buy out your teaching, to let you concentrate on the research; thus shifting the funding burden from the university to the research council. This can be very valuable, but has a couple of pernicious side-effects. First, it makes it extremely difficult for heads of department to plan their teaching allocations. Second, someone comes back to teaching after a long spell of being bought out by research grants; unlike his colleagues, he maybe doesn’t know (or has forgotten) how to teach, and the sort of commitment and collegiality it requires.

Moving down the scale, PhD students are supported by funds which often come from public or charitable sources. Once, long ago, all students were supported by public funds; now, instead, they are mostly forced to borrow the money, and leave university with a degree and a crippling debt burden. If PhD stipends were to go the same way, we would feel much more reluctant to compel students to acknowledge them. And what about the student who does a PhD, goes into “industry”, and then wants to come back to the academy and so writes up their PhD as research papers? The preparation of these papers is unsupported, or perhaps supported by the salary from the current job, rather than a distant memory of a PhD stipend.

The last thing I feel I need to say (because, while it is obvious to me, it is not obvious to many in university administration and in the government) is that there is an unbreakable link between research and teaching. There are many specific cases where, thinking about the subject I am teaching, I notice problems which have not been considered before; and, as my undergraduates at St Andrews were kind enough to point out, my teaching of a final year module always bumps up against unsolved research problems. But, more generally, teaching is excellent practice in explaining clearly the topic in hand, a valuable skill in writing research papers.

These issues are on the minds of British academics at the moment because of something that goes by the name of ResearchFish. I do not really understand it, but it seems to be a heavy-handed attempt by the research councils to force us to acknowledge sources of funding, seemingly ignoring the issues I have raised above. It hardly needs saying that I don’t know what I am supposed to do about this …