Research funding: What strategy is best?

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Published on: November 14, 2013

I was invited to the EPIC Planning Committee meeting after October’s Epigenomes of Plants and Animals conference at the John Innes Centre, and during the meeting we discussed what I think is the biggest issue in research strategy. That inspired this post, and a probably series of posts on the EPIC website – I’ll share them when they’re up. 

Is it best to spread resources and support/fund/promote as wide a breadth of research as possible, or focus on a few areas in more depth?

The problem with the ‘catch-all’ approach to research funding is that it inevitably does not catch all. In the UK plant science is funded via the BBSRC, and a large part of that funding is allocated through a committee-determined responsive mode structure. As the committees, made up of jobbing scientists, are only gently guided by broad strategic priorities, this is essentially catch-all. However, some plant science areas now occupy very small niches and are in danger of extinction. Plant and pathogen taxonomy, physiology, soil science and some plant species, even those of economic value like ornamental flowers, soft fruits and many vegetables, have all been neglected.

The alternative is to try and deliver an effective strategy for a few areas, ensuring that these areas have a healthy, broad basic research base from which any innovations that arise can efficiently be turned into commercial product. The difficulty is, of course, deciding which areas to focus on. The decision cannot be driven by fashions or trends, nor unduly influenced by current strengths and expertise, which are all reasons for gaps in the catch-all approach. Modelling and predicting global and local challenges, other countries’ research strategies, risk of failure and impact of success, existing expertise and facilities – these and many more factors should all be considered.

It would be a cop-out to write this post and not say what my opinion is. This issue is of course far more complex than this article allows, and there has to be flexibility in any system. There are big, bad consequences of choosing the wrong areas to invest in, but there are similar, unpredictable, ramifications to accidental skills gaps in both basic and translational science caused by thinly spread funding. So my inclination is to think that within a hypothetical altruistic and infinitely flexible innovation ecosystem, the world would be better served by a focused, in-depth strategy.

What do you think? Leave a comment or get in touch on Twitter.

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