London, UK (Scicasts) – How difficult is it for scientists to fund their projects? What are the reasons? These and other questions were the focus of the recent Scicasts survey on funding in biological sciences. Scientists, policy makers and industry professionals from all over the world provided us with their view on the current state of science funding landscape.
During the ten years I spent in academia, the first question that came up in all discussions concerned funding. The lack of funding opportunities and unequal distribution of funds based on the research area were also named as two main issues facing biosciences, according to our survey.
An average academic project would usually take 3-4 years to complete (often longer) and can cost from several hundreds to millions in the Euro equivalent. The main costs are equipment and chemicals – for instance, the microscope used to produce the image above costs around 300,000 €, slightly more than a new Ferrari car. A 0.5l bottle of medium needed to grow the cells on the picture can range from 20 to 300 Euro in price.
For comparison, an average salary of a postdoctoral researcher in the UK would be around £25-30,000 annually. A postdoc at a Max-Planck Institute in Germany receives around 25-30,000 € per year, whereas a typical PhD stipend of the Max-Planck Society is about 15-20,000 €, hovering just above the minimum national wage.
The most expensive devices are usually purchased by universities and research institutes from their centralized budget and hosted in shared equipment facilities. The rest of the items required to successfully conduct a research project are covered by individual research grants.
I have never experienced the present funding problems in more than 50 years.
Over 85% of academic researchers who took part in our survey had to apply for grants to sponsor their projects. When asked to rate how difficult it was for them to secure funding, 78% said it was difficult or very difficult (rating 8-10 on a scale from 1 to 10).
Too little funding and too much competition were named as the main reasons preventing scientists from getting funding. 88% of researchers believe it is difficult to obtain funding due to either or both of these points. Additionally, 7% of scientists find that their field is not considered “hot” and therefore funding opportunities are scarce.
Research Priority Areas
A shift in focus from supporting fundamental research to funding applied science projects was one of the major concerns of our respondents, according to their comments. In the aftermath of the financial crisis when countries need to choose strategic points, scientists could be the first to experience funding cuts.
The current approach seems to be towards funding applied research instead of basic science. This means that even of the limited funding pool, less goes to basic research projects with a less-defined industrial/biomedical application.
To find out which strategic areas are seen as priority by our users, we asked them to rank the following R&D areas according to their importance. Here is how the items got lined up.
The majority seems to agree that basic science research, which may bring results in ten or twenty years from now, should be our first priority. This is followed by healthcare and drug discovery research. Agriculture and environmental sciences are competing for the third position, whereas digital technology and space programs are seen as the least important.
To compare the public opinion with data on funding in these areas across different countries, we turned to the recent report from OECD on global R&D expenditure. Here is how much funding (% of total) was allocated to various R&D areas in 2011 in the United States, France, Germany and the UK.
Please note that “General Advancement of Knowledge” and ”Basic Science” do not have equal meaning. In a separate section of the same OECD report, expenses on “Basic Science” correspond to 17.3% in the USA, 25.3% in France and 10.8% in the UK (of total R&D expenditure). The data for Germany was not available.
“General Advancement of Knowledge” is a vague term, which most likely includes research projects performed by both private and public sectors. It may partly include strategic research in the other areas, however, we could not find a more detailed explanation.
Looking at it from a different angle, RCUK – the main UK government-sponsored body supporting academic research – announced a list of Priority Areas for 2010-2014 and relative expenses in each area (% of total). The latest report from 2015 only shows the total amount of allocated funding and does not mention Priority Areas.
Which areas should receive the most funding?
Within the area of biosciences, unequal funding opportunities in different fields were named among the main current issues. To find out if the amount of available funding corresponds to the importance of the field in the eyes of researchers, we asked our respondents to pick three science areas from the list, which (a) In their opinion, should receive the most funding; (b) Are currently receiving less funding than they deserve; or (c) Are overrated by the funding bodies.
Almost all of the survey participants belong to one of the following categories – academic researchers/science students; biotechnology/pharma professionals or members of science funding/policy organizations. The opinions of these groups proved to be different and are presented separately below.
As with any survey, this has limitations. Please see below for details on participation and if you notice any errors or have a different explanation of the survey results, please get in touch with us in the comments section below.
It seems that all participants agree that biochemistry, cancer research, drug discovery and disease processes should be receiving the most of available funding. The views on other areas, however, range dramatically among different groups.
The most interesting example is neuroscience, which took the third place in the academics’ rating, came in in the middle in the ranking from the industry professionals and was not marked among the important fields by funding and policy agencies.
Academic research - little comes out in relation to billions spent.
A likely reason is that neuroscience is a relatively young field and has not yet gained important recognition. The Nature Neuroscience journal was founded only in 1998, more than a decade after the first issue of Nature Biotechnology and a century after the publishing group was established in 1869. Discoveries in neuroscience have been making the magazine covers only recently, after neuroscientists joined forces with computer experts. Academics working at the frontiers may already see the potential, whereas the rest of the science community has not yet picked it up.
The views on microbiology were also split. It is perceived as one of the priorities by members of science funding and policy organizations, but was ranked among less or the least important areas by academic scientists and industry professionals. Here one would keep in mind that microorganisms are mostly seen by scientists as research tools. Therefore, studies of bacterial diseases would belong to the area of disease processes, rather than microbiology.
Another such example is the ranking of ecology and environmental sciences. Whereas environmental sciences scored high among academics and industry professionals, ecology was trailing far behind and took one of the last positions. Although the two terms can be seen as essentially similar, the word ecology has been increasingly used in relation to everything, from air pollution to species diversity. It has probably lost its original meaning and is now considered non-professional.
A different way of looking at this question altogether would be to compare numbers of personnel employed in various research areas. A network of the Max-Planck Institutes with over 80 chapters in Germany and all over the world provides a good example.
The infographics below reflects personnel of the main Max-Planck research institutes in different areas of life sciences.
The largest Max-Planck Institutes are MPI for Biochemistry and MPI for Biophysical Chemistry, each hosting around 850 staff, including both scientists and administration. They are followed by MPI for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics and MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology, with about 500 staff each.
A number of smaller institutes that could be regarded as a cluster in neurosciences employ a total of over 900 people, whereas a group of institutes conducting research more directly related to medicine host almost 2000 researchers and administrative staff. Two institutes responsible for research in plant sciences together employ about 700 people, whereas the MPI of Psychiatry alone is home to over 300 employees.
Which fields are receiving less than they deserve?
Although not considered a priority by funding agencies, neuroscience in their view is still receiving less funding that it deserves. Industry professionals, on the other hand, mostly do not believe that neuroscience is underfunded, probably due to the reason that not many marketable products came out of the field until now.
Similarly, drug discovery ranks high according to the academics’ view, whereas the industry and funding bodies do not seem to agree. As many others, the term drug discovery is quite broad, including remedies for rare diseases or those which until now have been considered incurable.
One such example is the Myasterix project, a joint collaborative effort in developing a vaccine for an autoimmune disease Myasthenia gravis, which affects only about 0.02% of the world’s population. The project was initiated in 2013 by a small Belgian company Curavac (http://www.curavac.com/myasterix/) and funding for it was secured through the 7th Framework Program of the European Commission.
In addition, all major pharmaceutical companies have their own R&D departments, which are sponsored from the companies’ profits and therefore do not require external funding.
Funding is based on committees that are reluctant to fund work that is several steps ahead of the current literature. Watson noted that NIH would never have funded his DNA structure modeling work.
Stem cell research and food biosciences, on the other hand, are receiving less funding than they deserve, according to the industry point of view. Neither academic scientists, nor funding agencies seem fully to share this opinion. Stem cell research came among the last in academic ranking and, together with food bioscience, was not spotted out by the funding agencies in this question.
Which fields are overrated by the funding bodies?
At the first glance, the question may seem controversial, since the responses could be affected by the news coverage of science fields and general public awareness. However, all respondents share the view that drug discovery, cancer and stem cell research are overrated among funding applications.
The most highly overrated field in the view of academia and industry is big data research, which includes genomics, proteomics and similar “-omics” projects. Funding and policy agencies do not fully agree with that and consider neuroscience as more overrated.
While neuroscience was discussed above, the big data projects promise to provide a broad picture of the human genome and proteome, however, our current technical methods may not yet be ideal to deal with vast amounts of data. Moreover, each dataset obtained from the same sample could be slightly different on different days and spotting changes among thousands of proteins can be a real challenge. Perhaps, advances in computing will bring the field forward but to date, academics and industry professionals believe that the expectations from this field are higher than the current outcomes.
Big grants are increasingly awarded to a smaller number of large labs. Net effect: less money to fund smaller labs that may be doing more innovative work.
The opposite example is psychology, which has been marked as overrated by a majority of members from the industry and funding agencies but not by academic scientists. It may be argued that this field belongs to humanities rather than biosciences, however, psychology research has been increasingly linked with discoveries in neurosciences, which prompted us to include it in our survey.
Connection between neuroscience and psychology has only been established recently and this area may not yet be widely recognized. On the other hand, a field of popular psychology receives broad media coverage, which may have diminished its value in the eyes of funding agencies.
Collaborations and other important factors for securing funding
Different factors may be at play when it comes to securing funding for a science project. About 30% of academic researchers say there is too little funding available and more than half (52%) regard the lack of funding opportunities and high competition as the main reason for the difficulty in obtaining funding.
Research projects outside the current “fashion areas” may have less chances of securing funding, according to 7% of our academic respondents. Studies of rare diseases were among those mentioned in the comments.
We need to change the culture of 'who you know' to the culture of 'what you know', particularly with regard to the cancer research and therapy whose control is in the hand of established insiders with motives that are far from serving the public.
Another issue pointed out by researchers, was a high degree of internal politics and a “bias of certain reviewers towards certain principal investigators”. “The survey should include a question related to the "Red Tapism" involved in developing countries like India to fetch funding from funding agencies,” – writes an Indian group leader. Similar concerns were raised by academics based in Europe and in the USA.
Coming back to the value of applied research versus fundamental science, we asked our respondents to rate from 1 to 10 how important it is, in their view, to have connections to industry to secure funding. About 40% of respondents believe that it is important or can be helpful (rating 4-6 out of 10), while 18% think it is very important (8/10) and 12% regard connections to industry as extremely important (10/10) for a successful application. Only 40% of researchers reported that their department were connected to industrial partners.
International collaborations, on the other hand, have now become very common – almost 70% of academics reported that they have international research partners. About 45% of researchers think that it is important or can be helpful to have international collaborations to successfully secure funding (4-6 out of 10 on a rating scale), 20% believe it is very important (8/10) and 15% rated it as extremely important (10/10).
The researchers receive little compensation in Latin America.
The following chart represents collaborations between labs around the world. Please note that the size of each sector reflects the number of responses we received from each continent/subcontinent. Hover over the sides of the circle to view connections separately for each sector.
Survey statistics and limitations
A total of 186 people took part in our study, representing 33 different countries. The majority of responses, however, came from the USA (60%) and Europe (23%).
About 75% of respondents work in or study academic science, 16% are industry professionals and only 4% belong to a science funding or science policy organization.
Most academic scientists who participated are principal investigators (60%), about 16% hold a postdoctoral position or equivalent and 9% are students (graduate and undergraduate).
Of all participants, 61% were men, 36% women and about 3% preferred to not report their gender. Among pharmaceutical and biotechnology professionals men comprised 60% and women 40%. Similarly, among academic scientists and students, about 60% were men and 40% women.
About 64% of principal investigators were men, 33% women and 3% of respondents preferred to not report their gender. Within the group of postdoctoral researchers, however, women represented 50%, men 41%, and the remaining 9% did not wish to report.
As a bottom line, this survey revealed a number of different issues, one of them being a certain lack of communication between the academic sector, industry and funding bodies. We will now try to address these by bringing in expert comments and holding discussions. The Life Sciences Hub Wales has already given us their view on how small businesses and academia can join forces. We will also speaking to Innovate UK, consultancies and other partners and publish these in our Insights section.