Brislen on Tech: Show me the money
I follow microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles on Twitter and I've met her several times. We all know Siouxsie - she's the voice of reason around COVID, has flaming pink hair, has been a strident advocate for science communication for as long as I've known her and …
And she has to pitch her lab's work for funding on a regular basis.
Even now, when she's famous for having talked us through COVID and helped produce materials that have been used around the world to explain viruses, transmission, how to squash the curve and all the rest of the things we've learned in the last 18 months, she has to beg for money to continue her research into (wait for it) infections diseases, infection models, pathogen transmission and goodness only knows what other useful items.
Siouxsie puts up with keyboard warriors telling her she's wrong because they saw a YouTube video clip that proves NASA faked the moon landings (or some such twaddle) and senior stuffed shirts telling her she shouldn't be talking to muggles about science because what's the point. And she does all this with a smile. She regularly mentors new scientists, speaks at events and she writes books that are accessible to all and encourage kids into science.
In PR terms she's gold - she has recognition and following, the timing is right and she's the go-to microbiologist who has been the recipient of numerous awards over the past 15 years or so.
So why is she having to beg for funding? This year alone she's been turned down for three major grants and this one is particularly galling.
"Just had another funding application rejected. It was for a 2-year grant that doesn't have enough budget to cover full salary for a postdoc so we asked for a technician instead. Gutted. It was to carry on our (unfunded) project looking at how bacteria become more infectious.
"Two of the four reviewers clearly loved it. Here are some of their comments: "important, innovative and original", "concept and aims are excellent", "end result should be a treasure trove of data". Also: "topic is interesting from a fundamental viewpoint, but also has numerous potential applications in controlling infectious diseases" and "I have every confidence that the proposed research is achievable within the stipulated timetable".
As ever, grant applications are a bit like winning the lottery and not just for Siouxsie and her team. They're great when they happen but the decision-making is a tad random, it seems. Universities cut funding all the time and what should be a shining part of our economic portfolio seems cast to one side, to be had if we can but not to be relied upon.
The tech sector's R&D spend often feels this way too. Sure, we have the R&D tax credit system in place now, but the OECD data still puts us pottering along at roughly half the OECD average spend (half!) spending under 1.4% of GDP on research and development. That puts us on par with Spain and Turkey, just ahead of the Slovak Republic.
This is not the sweet spot for developing our future. This is what you do instead of building our own future.
If we are to avoid the path the Productivity Commission paints for us, where we use other people's developments and advances but can't build any of our own, then we should carry on regardless.
But if we want to forge our own destiny, grow our own science and technology sectors, to lead the world instead of stumbling along behind, then we need to spend some actual money on science, on technology and on research.
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