Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Whither (or possibly even wither) BBSRC’s Committee C?

Posted by Athene Donald on September 14, 2010

I am now heading off to a hotel near Heathrow for a BBSRC committee meeting. These are always held in such delightful locations because of the need for a large enough hotel to fit all 4 committees plus the associated BBSRC staff in simultaneously.  I hope I have done my preparation carefully enough – and that my committee have done so likewise. Committee C (likewise B) only has about half the number of grants of committees A and D, yet it is still a mammoth stretch of concentration.  At the start of the last meeting, not having yet got into my stride, I made a classic mistake as I turned to one of my committee members. Let us say her name was Athene Donald (clearly it wasn’t, but my name serves equally well as an illustration of what I did wrong). I looked down my list of who the introducing members were, saw ‘Donald’ as a plausible name and so said ‘”Donald, would you kick off please”.   Deeply embarrassing, and all goes to show that – despite the tenor of my last post – I am equally capable of getting things wrong as a chair.

What strikes me about the grants we are currently seeing coming through our committee is the high proportion that are based around modelling/computational/e-science/bioinformatics approaches. Gone are the days when biologists did not cope well with such matters; the standard line of ‘I’m a biologist because I couldn’t do maths at school’ clearly is no longer valid, if it ever was. Even if they have a computer scientist as a collaborator (and many of them do not) they have obviously wholeheartedly swallowed the more mathematical and if you like systems biology approaches, pushed by both the past and present CEO’s of BBSRC, and made them their own. It is only 6 years since I chaired a Panel specifically on Bioinformatics and E-science for the BBSRC, arising from a focussed call with ring-fenced money which had to be spent in a single round. This had been felt necessary because there was perceived to be a lack of much serious work in that area.  Now, around 25% of the grants Committee C sees fall into this general category, with even more that have an element of this included in an overall experimental programme.

I think this observation demonstrates just how much a field can be kickstarted by pump-priming money coupled with a strongly held view by those at the top of a research council.  Sunsetting areas – deciding they aren’t priorities – is harder to do, and often happens by inanition rather than formal policy as far as I can tell.  But, with Cable’s depressing and misleading speech last week, and a not obviously more encouraging – though perhaps more accurate – one  from Willets yesterday it looks like drastic things are bound to happen to UK research funding so that potentially large and fertile areas will be effectively closed off.  It’s far too early to know where the axe will fall, but logically either some mechanism will be established to restrict the number and/or subject area of grant applications allowed to be submitted, or success rates will tumble from the not-too-disastrous level of ~20% the BBSRC has achieved over recent rounds.  It is not a happy or sensible place for UK science to find itself, as many others  have cogently discussed, neatly summarised in a series of reports by William Cullerne Brown . No doubt nothing official or drastic will yet be happening at a grant-awarding committee like mine today, but I’m sure there will be plenty of rumbles in the bar.

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