What is the best way to fund research, and what kinds of research should be funded?

There are many kinds of research and many kinds of people involved in research. Sometimes what seems useless at the time can have huge consequences a generation later (and sometimes not). Some research results which seem a triumph at the time are show useless by later developments. A career in research requires dedication and talent, but is highly risky in terms of personal and institutional success. How can all of these factors be balanced?

Thor May
Adelaide, 2016





This page is an initial starter list for discussing the "Research Funding " topic. The page makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome. 












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=>Reading list: go to the end of these notes


Comments on the topic by Thor:


If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants [Isaac Newton, 1642 - 1727]


1. Introduction


What is research? Any discussion about funding research has to start with that question. In fact, there are many answers to what research is. Within the realms of academic and scientific research (not always the same) some institutions and individuals have tried to provide formal definitions about the nature of research (e.g. O’Donnell 2012, Primary Health Care Research & Information Service 2016, Shuttleworth 2008) but their answers diverge widely.

In the broad context of the world we live in I prefer to think of research as a systematic inquiry, then synthesis, for the purpose of solving a problem. Some of us are obviously better at this than others, both by temperament and training. The created environment in which we live is becoming phenomenally complex, and the rate of increasing complexity accelerates constantly.  Such complexity would seem to give a survival advantage to those who are able to  collect and synthesize ideas efficiently. However this is only partly true since large parts of human activity are spontaneous, instinctual and emotional. Vast numbers of individuals still get by, semi-literate, semi-numerate and oblivious of incredibly complicated technology their survival depends upon. Sometimes in political terms their voices are the loudest. Yet in the background there has to be a corpus of people who actually know what they are doing, who are able to keep the machine working. Those more sophisticated people depend upon constant research of many kinds.


2. Scholarship Vs Research


Scholarship is the process of collecting and ordering existing knowledge, often a useful and necessary process which generally doesn’t make heavy demands on originality. Research normally incorporates some scholarship, but in the context of scientific inquiry implies an attempt to advance existing scholarship beyond its present limits.

Even scholarship itself covers a wide spectrum. Consider for example the extraordinary achievement of Deborah Smith, 28, who only started learning Korean three years before she embarked on the translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, for which they have just (2016) jointly won the prestigious Booker Prize in literature (Agence France-Presse 2016). Korean is one of the world’s most difficult languages. The importance of this piece of scholarship is that makes available to an international audience the otherwise mostly closed world of Korean thinking.

If you have been around universities for a while you might notice that a lot of people are actually just practising rather mundane scholarship dressed up as research.  A piece of research is only as good as the question(s) it seeks to answer, and the research design with which it attempts to find answers. In industry, institutes, universities, and private research, enormous numbers of individuals are constantly involved in systematic inquiry of one kind or another. Some of them do it for a commercial agenda, some for prestige, some purely for career employment, and some out of a consuming curiosity about how the world works.

From this large collection of people, only a few of them have truly original minds, able to ask critical insightful questions, design ingenious research programs, and persist (often against high resistance) to synthesise genuinely new levels of knowledge. Sadly it is often not the case that the truly original minds prevail in institutional settings amongst that larger cohort practising routine scholarship, following organizational rules, playing office politics, and impressing managers who understand research purely as a marketing activity.


3. The PhD sausage machine


Apprenticeship for a formal research career is typically via writing a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy dissertation). A PhD is a piece of narrowly focussed research on a specialized topic, and its definition in university regulations defines it as “an original contribution to human knowledge”. PhDs take a minimum of two years to complete, often many more years, under the direction of one or more supervisors (senior academics) who are supposed to loosely guide and advise the candidate to make sure they understand proper scientific processes. The actual pattern varies somewhat between disciplines. It might be highly controlled in laboratory type research, or simply periodic consultation in other areas.

Universities in Australia are funded for enrolling PhD candidates, and rewarded according to completion rates. The regulations are detailed, the real practice sketchy. My own extended experience with supervisors in Australian settings, and as a student union representative for other postgraduates, has been that many (most?) supervisors are of little value, having only a peripheral interest in what the PhD candidate is attempting to research. Supervisors are busy with their own research (often unrelated to what the candidate is attempting) and have large teaching loads. The life of a PhD candidate can be discouraging. In most fields the employment prospects for PhD graduates are poor (yes, even in science and technology). This pattern is set in universities themselves where 60% of employment is now casual. PhD candidates are a cheap source of easily coerced labour, and once graduated, they are often employed on short term post-doctoral contracts, a continuing source of cheap, insecure labour at the bottom of the academic pecking order. In the wider employment marketplace in Australia. doctoral graduates are widely distrusted by insecure managers and labelled “overqualified” by the general anti-intellectual tenor of Australian culture.

What of doctoral dissertations themselves? The few that are genuinely original, and open new vistas that fit the age, those are of great importance, though it is not unusual for the contribution to take a generation or more to be recognized (while their creators languish as “useless failures”). Such dissertations can lead to the establishment of new industries, change the way the rest of us understand the world, improve the lives of millions. Few people are aware that many large changes wrought in their lives began as doctoral research projects. Google, for example, was one such project.

Beyond spectacular success stories, the largest number of doctoral dissertations are, at best, records of the systematic education of their authors. To have written a doctoral dissertation at least shows (if it is not ghost written) that the author is tenacious and has learned to solve difficult problems in a systematic way. Those are qualities not to be lightly dismissed. However, most dissertations themselves find a place in library archives and are never read again. Their quality runs on a cline from competent but unimaginative to plodding assemblies of known and irrelevant trivia. As an editor I have been asked to render quite a few theses presentable in purely formal terms. What I have encountered again and again at the bottom end of the range are incurious minds, massive redundancy in presentation, and individuals going through the motions creating a “dissertation” by following set procedural steps. In the social sciences and finance for example, such theses may be built around some barely understood statistical procedures applied to weakly constructed questionnaires. Are theses like this accepted? Too often they are. The examiners feel safe with this stuff since all the “rules” were followed, and after all completion rates are financially important to the institutions. Mediocre examiners and supervisors, on the other hand, may feel out of their depth and unsafe with truly original ideas. The value of the safety razor was obvious immediately it was invented, but the value of original ideas may take a long time to become clear to the unoriginal minds who dominate institutions. Hence an almost insoluble funding problem.


4. The high risk of undertaking original research


It is now widely understood that business “startups” have a very high casualty rate. Angel investors who back new business ideas work on the principal that though the largest number of their investments are going to crash and burn, amongst the few which survive there will be some spectacular successes to cover all other losses. Though the angel investor tries to pick winners, he knows in his bones that the success of real winners in the end is widely unpredictable. Entrepreneurs themselves who try startup idea after startup idea can come to see their failures as lessons learned on the road to success. However, even as the concept of business failure becomes a culturally acceptable way-stop on life’s journey, it is only a minority of entrepreneurs who make it to the big-time.

In another domain, there are countless thousands who dream of writing a block-buster novel (or nowadays, of making a film). The remainder stalls in discount bookshops are a reminder of their folly, yet the wannabes keep plugging the spare hours of their short lives into the writing dream. Luckily, most also keep their day jobs. They would have better chances playing poker machines in a casino, yet the lure of the literary jackpot keeps them attached.

Now let us consider research. The same kind of dynamic of occasional success versus multiple failures applies to original research as it does to business startups and novel writing. However, there are also major differences. Many research activities take decades or more to come to fruition. This implies a lifelong commitment by highly intelligent people who might otherwise make rather easy fortunes in widely understood activities such as (for example) real estate investment. As researchers the odds are that most of them will never achieve startling incomes, or social prominence, or even respect. Worse, there is a very, very high chance that their particular research endeavour will turn out to be one of the many which in the end does not provide the best possible answers to the issues being investigated.

High stakes research frequently requires the assembly of rarely talented individuals and horrendously expensive equipment in institutes with all the attendant costs of real estate, administrators, support staff, and so on. Combine this scenario with the just discussed low chances of actual success, and you have a major political problem when it comes to funding. Then when the plunge has actually been taken, the institute has been humming away for a decade or two, then new science elsewhere suddenly shows that the whole research gamble is actually a loser, what happens? What happens is denial at every level, from the receptionist to the chief researcher to the politician who put his neck on the line to take this gamble in the first place. These are all human beings who have staked their careers, their mortgages, their self-respect, into researching one kind of answer to some very complex problems. There is an old saying in the research community that science advances one funeral at a time.


5. The model game


It is extremely difficult for the general public, and the politicians they elect, and the managers they hire to oversee things, to understand the enormous gambles involved in researching complex phenomena. It is therefore really hard to persuade all these people to devote large amounts of money to funding research, unless they are driven by direct personal fear, such as in (for example) cancer research.

H.L. Menken once said that for every complex problem there is  an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. People however crave simple answers. Even in the warped psychology of dating site advertisements, one of the prime memes is “I am a simple girl”. How often do you see “I am a complex person”? And so it goes with popular answers to the big questions in life. However, as at least the more sophisticated members of society acquire increasing insight into human cultures and nature, they realize that the many-layered complexity they find at every turn cannot be comprehended in any simple way. In fact, it cannot be comprehended at all except by putting together complicated theories about how this or that might work, and then testing the theories to see if they have real predictive power. One of the names for such complicated theories is “model”.

If engineers want to understand what will happen to a bridge under stress, they may make a scale model and put it in a wind tunnel. However, many kinds of models cannot be conveniently scaled. If we want to understand how language is actually made by human brains, there is no simple way we can observe what is going on. Instead we formulate a model to describe what might be happening, then test the model to see how it actually works (I lost several decades of my life on a failed version of just such a model, though many of my contemporaries still insist that the model is viable). If we want to understand climate change, then we have to create detailed mathematical models using enormous amounts of data, then check whether the model (and there are many competing models) has predictive power.

For outsiders, including those funding their investigation, the important thing to understand is that many of them will turn out to wholly or partially wrong, but that to understand and profit  from complicated phenomena the gamble on models has to be taken. Politicians and managers, being the types they are, will typically turn to researchers with stellar reputations to recommend which models to back. What else can they do? But pretty often bets made in this way are especially unlikely to succeed. This is because the researchers with stellar reputations are often the ones with wily political skills themselves, of a mature age, and with vested interests in models that looked promising a generation ago but are now past their use-by date. In this game, the outsider who might have ideas that truly are game changing has little chance. Frequently this clever outsider gets on a plane and leaves Australia.


6. So who is going to pay for all this stuff?


Different kinds of research require different levels of funding. In some cases, quite ground-breaking work can be done by individuals, perhaps working in a related profession, who are more or less self-funding. See for example, the fascinating work of V.S. Ramachandran on cognitive mapping (Ramachandran & Blakeslee 1999). Some individuals, like the wannabe novelists, labour away in boring day jobs and steal their own free time to discover interesting things. The recent appearance of open publication sites like Academia.edu are a blessing for them.

The largest amount of formal research, the kind that professional researchers make a living at, is funded by governments, by industry, by philanthropic foundations, or by universities multi-purposing from their parallel teaching roles. Quite often these funding sources overlap in various ways. Governmental funding (either direct or through universities) is subject to the whims of political change. Years of work can be destroyed on a whim by some fool of an ignorant incoming politician. Research funded by industry is highly directed by a profit motive, and therefore tends to have a fairly short lifespan. Since money rules in industrial research, false and even dangerous conclusions may be supported where this leads to the viable marketing of a new product. For example, there have been many deadly example of corrupted research in the pharmaceutical and food industries. Philanthropically funded research really turns on the interests and values of the philanthropist. That is, it tends to be directed at specific immediate problems (such as public health), rather than speculative and theoretical with hoped for future benefits in another generation. This kind of research is quite widespread in the United States, and in some cases has been of great value.

7. The cross-funding approach

As an undergraduate in New Zealand I once had a friend who was studying literature. He surprised me one day by revealing that he was really a hair dresser. After qualifying in that trade after leaving school he opened a salon. The work bored him witless, but rather than writing the whole experience as a mistake, he opened three hairdressing salons, hired some beauticians and hairdressers to do the work, then sat back to collect the earnings. They were happy, and he was happy since he had time to follow his passion in literature. I admired him at the time, but lacked the wit to follow his example (a mistake long regretted).

Cross-subsidizing a personal career was once relatively rare, but if the sellers on eBay are any indication, has become a major pre-occupation for huge numbers of people. Nor is it unusual for a business conglomerate to cross-subsidize a part of its empire for non-commercial reasons, or with a view to later profit. News Limited's The Australian hasn't made a profit for years but is a valued instrument of influence for the billionaire, Rupert Murdoch.

Cross-subsidized undertakings can also have downsides. When I first went to China in 1998, the Chinese military had just been told to get out of businesses. Businesses had originally been permitted to susidize a under-funded military budget, and to keep the officer corps out of mischief. They had succeeded wonderfully in commercial terms with factories and retail shops across China, as well as huge smuggling operations in the south of China that threatened to outstrip legal international trade. In other words they were becoming a commercial threat to everyone, as well as looking less and less like a professional army. Something similar has now sprung up with so-called cyber warfare divisions. They are tasked with stealing foreign technology, finding ways to disrupt China's perceived enemies, and underming any internal criticism in the country through propaganda. The problem is that much of this is more than soldier's work. It is now emerging that unscrupulous operatives within the cyber warfare division are also working for personal gain, using their knowledge to extort money and power from within the Chinese polity.

With the preceding examples in mind, we can say that a very likely outcome of cross-subsidized models in private life, in business or in government, is that there will be unanticipated consequences. There is a natural tension between the roles of subsidizer and subsidized. Although that which is subsidized may be for some higher purposes, there is every chance that it will be subverted, or in the worst cases become merely a front for the subsidizer.

And so it has become with universities. Universities of course contain many excellent and didicated researchers (as well as armies of hangers-on). However, in the hierarchies of competing productivities and missions, most universities are dominated now by a commercial ethic. They are marketing agencies.

[more to come]




Reading List*  (other suggestions welcome)

Agence France-Presse (17 May, 2016) "Han Kang is first South Korean to win Man Booker International Prize, sharing literature award with translator". South China Morning Post, online @ http://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/1946078/han-kang-first-south-korean-win-man-booker-international-prize-sharing

Anonymous(3 January 2013) "“Ph.D. in English Useless - Destroyed My Life”: A Selloutyoursoul Reader Writes In". SellYourSoul blog online @ http://www.selloutyoursoul.com/2010/11/21/phd-in-english-and-life-after-grad-school/

Australian Government (2016) Australia-China Science and Research Fund (ACSRF). Web page online @ http://www.science.gov.au/international/CollaborativeOpportunities/ACSRF/Pages/default.aspx 

Australian Government (2016) Australian Council for the Arts online @ http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/research/

Australian Government (2016) Australian Research Council. ARC website online @ http://www.arc.gov.au/grants 

Australian Government (2016) The National Innovation and Science Agenda. Website online @ http://www.innovation.gov.au/ 

Brown, Michael J. I.  with Adam Micolich and Gaetan Burgio (November 2, 2015) "Are we funding the right researchers in Australia? ". The Conversation online @ https://theconversation.com/are-we-funding-the-right-researchers-in-australia-50064  

CoEDL (2016) Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language website [Linguistic research in Australia] online @ http://www.dynamicsoflanguage.edu.au/home/ 

Government of South Australia (2016) Premier's Research and Industry Fund. Web page online @ http://www.statedevelopment.sa.gov.au/science/premiers-research-and-industry-fund 

Hannam, Peter (May 10 2016) "Global warming milestone about to be passed and there's no going back". [CSIRO research] Brisbane Times online @  http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/environment/climate-change/global-warming-milestone-about-to-be-passed-and-theres-no-going-back-20160509-goqcm0.html 

IBM (2016) IBM Research (Australia). IBM online @ http://www.research.ibm.com/labs/australia/index.shtml

Kuhn, Thomas (1962, 1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. [should be compulsory reading for anyone discussing research and scientific method] University of Chicago Press; 3rd edition, available on Amazon in various formats @ http://www.amazon.com/Structure-Scientific-Revolutions-Thomas-Kuhn/dp/0226458083  

Library Genesis (2016) - Over 1.5 million torrent files of fiction, science & technology available for free. Online @ http://gen.lib.rus.ec/ 

May, Thor (2013, 2015) "The Probable Language Brain". Academia.edu online @ https://www.academia.edu/2563032/The_Probable_Language_Brain_2013_extended_2015_  

May, Thor (2014) "The Purpose of Education - a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy?". Academia.edu online @ https://www.academia.edu/7976327/The_Purpose_of_Education_-_a_hitchhiker_s_guide_to_the_galaxy

May, Thor (2011) "Why write a PhD?" Academia.edu online @ http://www.academia.edu/1978293/Why_Write_A_PhD

May, Thor (2002) "The paradox of scholarship: pissing on every lamp post" at https://www.academia.edu/2227990/The_paradox_of_scholarship_pissing_on_every_lamp_post

May, Thor (1986) "A Collision of Technology and Politics - Star Wars Revisited". The Passionate Skeptic website online @ http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/Star-Wars-Revisited.htm

O'Donnell, Jonathan (18 September 2012) "What is research?". The Research Whisperer website online @ https://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/what-is-research/  

Oxenham, Simon (2016) "Meet the Robin Hood of Science - The tale of how one researcher has made nearly every scientific paper ever published available for free to anyone, anywhere in the world". http://bigthink.com/neurobonkers/a-pirate-bay-for-science 

Phillips, Nicky (April 11, 2015) "How Australian scientists are bending the rules to get research funding". [recommended reading] Sydney Morning Herald online @ http://www.smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/how-australian-scientists-are-bending-the-rules-to-get-research-funding-20150409-1mhrbw.html 

Primary Health Care Research & Information Service (2016). "What is Research? - PHCRIS Getting Started Guides: Introduction to... Different research models". Phcris website online @ http://www.phcris.org.au/guides/about_research.php   

Ramachandran, V.S. and Sandra Blakeslee (August 18, 1999) Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. William Morrow Paperbacks. Available on Amazon @ http://www.amazon.com/Phantoms-Brain-Probing-Mysteries-Human/dp/0688172172

Research Australia (2015) Research Australia. [It is unclear who is running this website] blog online @ http://www.researchaustralia.com.au/ 

Research Data Australia (2016) A search engine specifically for extracting data on over 100 Australian research databases. Online @ https://researchdata.ands.org.au/ 

Rice, Curt (13 February 2013) "Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried - A recent report reveals that only 12% of third year female PhD students want a career in academia". The Guardian online @ http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2012/may/24/why-women-leave-academia?goback=.gde_1844342_member_212291770 

Rowbotham, Jill (February 13, 2013) "New reality dawns for academics - ACADEMICS have been living in a fool's paradise, assuming their autonomy was sacrosanct, but now it is in play as four crises unfold in universities around the world, according to leading sociologist Michael Burawoy".  The Australian online @ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/new-reality-dawns-for-academics/story-e6frgcjx-1226576479354

Safi, Michael (25 November 2014) "'Get me off your fucking mailing list!' - Journal accepts bogus paper requesting removal from mailing list -  Australian computer scientist Dr Peter Vamplew submitted emphatically titled paper to ‘predatory’ journal and ‘nearly fell off chair’ when it was accepted".  The Guardian online @ http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2014/nov/25/journal-accepts-paper-requesting-removal-from-mailing-list  

Sample, Ian (July 17, 2012) "Scientific research will be free online - The British government has revealed controversial plans to make publicly funded scientific research immediately available for anyone to read for free by 2014, in the most radical shake-up of academic publishing since the invention of the internet". The Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/technology/sci-tech/scientific-research-will-be-free-online-20120716-226aw.html#ixzz20pOo09bM

Science Daily – a website for presenting briefs on discoveries in a wide range of current research fields in layman’s language. A link to the original research is always given. Very useful (there are a number of sites like this. “I-love-fucking-science” is another one). Online at http://sciencedaily.com

Shankland, Stephen (September 26, 2013) "Academia.edu raises funds to build a Facebook for scientists - Startup hopes to overhaul how researchers publish papers, making them freely available to all and substituting social-network success for the traditional peer-review process". http://news.cnet.com/8301-11386_3-57604722-76/academia.edu-raises-funds-to-build-a-facebook-for-scientists/ 

Shuttleworth, Martyn (Feb 2, 2008) "What is Research". Explorable.com website online @ https://explorable.com/what-is-research   

Silva, Paul J (December 13, 2012) "More papers, better papers? The curious correlation of quality and quantity in academic publishing". The Australian online @ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/more-papers-better-papers-the-curious-correlation-of-quality-and-quantity-in-academic-publishing/story-e6frgcjx-1226535254934

The Conversation – contributions by Australian academics, but in journalistic language, on a wide range of topics of current interest. The comments section is often informative too. Online @ https://theconversation.com/au   

The Conversation – index of articles on TheConversation dealing with research funding. Online @ https://theconversation.com/search?q=research+funding

The Conversation – index of articles on TheConversation dealing with research funding. Online @ https://theconversation.com/search?q=research+funding

Wikipedia (2015) "Australian Research Council". Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Research_Council


Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).


A Universal Basic Income. $400 per week indexed to the CPI ©Thor May 2016


index of discussion topics