Jayshree Seth: Fifty-eight percent of people worldwide believe their government does not contribute enough to science research. How do we make sure science gets the funding it needs? We'll balance the bank accounts this time on "Science Champions."
Welcome to "Science Champions." I'm your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.
Scientific research has led to technological innovations worth trillions of dollars. It's easy to measure the value of R&D for a new type of heart pump or a more efficient engine or a new type of building material. But what about research that simply expands our knowledge about the universe and how it works? Can we put a price tag on advancing humankind as a species? And who should be picking up the tab? My guest this episode is passionately committed to public funding for science. Jenny Rohn is a cell biologist at the University College London and the founder of Science is Vital, a campaign for public funding of science in the U.K.
Jenny, thank you for joining me. Let's jump right in. Do you think there is enough public sector funding for science in your country? And why should or shouldn't science be funded by the government?
Jenny Rohn: Well, I don't think there's enough science funding in my country, which is the United Kingdom. We are basically 18th, if you look at the OECD countries. We're well behind France, Germany, the United States, basically all of our competitors. Being 18th doesn't make a lot of sense because we are really a high-powered science country. We punch above our weight. The amount of money that's spent on science is really negligible. For example, the G8 countries of Europe, the average GDP, so those percentage of scientific research budget as a percentage of GDP, it's 0.77% and we are way down at 0.48, so almost half of the G8. And half of the Eurozone, a little bit more than half of the OECD and even below the EU-28. So, however you look at the statistics, the funding is sort of negligible. That's really surprising.
And I think that the government...to answer your second question, I think that the government should fund science because, although, of course, you have private industry and you have pharmaceuticals, some things just can't be done in the private sector. For example, innovations, they come primarily from academia. I did a little stint in biotech and basically, we outsourced all the thinking to academia who contract out the research. So coming up with the ideas, the pipeline that was sort of drug discovery in my field, for example, the academics are coming up with the ideas and industry sort of runs with it once there's an idea. So I think that the private sector is not so good at coming up with these brilliant ideas.
And also, industry, again, in my field of drug discovery, can only do profitable things. You can't work on rare diseases, you can't develop new antibiotics. No matter how much we need them, they're just not profitable for a company. So we're really relying on the government and taxpayers to help fund those things that industry cannot or will not fund.
JS: I do see your point, but I do believe some private companies value creativity and discovery. Even if ultimately, the goal is to develop a product, for instance, our scientists are encouraged to spend 15% of our time on passion projects and they have led to many exciting discoveries.
JR: Okay. Well, again, I have industry experience in the drug discovery field. I think it's great at developing things, taking them forward in an applied way. Now, if it's profitable, profitable as I mentioned above, once you've got that problem, you can just throw money at it and really work towards it in a concentrated and focused manner. You're kind of less swayed off the path by creative shortcuts and side tracks that academics might take, going down rabbit holes like they tend to do sometimes. It's more efficient, you work as a team, you're not in a competitive environment. Of course, you're competing with other companies, but within that company, everybody is on the same team, whereas in academia there's a lot of competition even amongst the groups in the same department. And also academic publication and grant-seeking takes an enormous amount of time and productivity. I personally spend most of my time writing papers and writing grants that get rejected. So that leaves me way less time to think about the great science. So that is sort of the pro of the private sector.
But of course, the cons are, as I already alluded to, you can't really do much creative work in the private sector. You're taking things forward that have already been discovered by somebody else, primarily academics during the discovering. And I think the ability of academics to have freedom to follow that rabbit, go down the rabbit hole and follow that stray idea that somebody in the private sector doesn't have a luxury to do, that's what brings us to serendipitous discoveries that bring the true change and true novel ideas. So yeah, it's a bit less disorganized in academia and more creative. Private sector does have its place, does a great job.
JS: That makes sense. But yes, I agree that public funding is crucial. The challenge is to convince the public that science deserves their tax money. So how do you think scientists can be better communicators about the importance of public funding?
JR: Well, quite frankly, scientists just need to get out there and do it. Blogging, tweeting, social media, get school kids into your labs, be available when journalists call, don't run away from them. I think all of this stuff is really important, especially the journalist stuff. If a journalist calls you and says, "Will you discuss this latest finding?" most academics will say, "Oh, well, yeah, but I didn't do that work so how can I discuss it?" forgetting that, of course, they're way more knowledgeable than anyone else who might be listening to the news broadcast later. And if you turned down the journalist and say, "No, no, no, I don't have time or it's beneath me," the journalist is just gonna turn around and ask somebody else and they might ask that crazy guy who thinks conspiracy theories.
So I think it really behooves scientists to not shy away from this duty, I think, to explain the research, not just their research, but any research if called upon. And I think blogs are a great way of getting the word out. And I also think that social media is amazing for scientists. It doesn't take that many words to distill some sort of excitement about your research. And there's lots of scientists who are tweeting pictures of themselves in the laboratory, what they find on the field, whatever it is they do, at the telescope. And I think these kinds of little snippets, slices of a scientist life are the kind of things that really do inspire and make people think, "Yeah, these scientists look like really cool people. They look interesting. I might even wanna have a drink with one." So I think, yeah, they just need to be seen.
And there is training available. There's loads of training for scientists who wanted to do more communication. And I think even the funding bodies expect that their grantees get out there and talk about science.
JS: It's true, the value of public funding is there. It's just we need to do a better job communicating it. But drilling down a little, what do you think about funding for pure research versus funding to solve a specific problem or create a specific product? What value does pure research have for the public?
JR: Now, this is a thorny question, of course. They both play a part. You can't really say one is more important than the other. I know that people try to. Many scientists think that blue skies research is a be-all and end-all and to be a true scientist, you must be pure and unfettered, and just following your heart. And it's true that blue sky research will result in unintended consequences that lead to these really amazing shifts. People always point to the internet as a great example of something that wasn't purposefully invented, but came out of basic research or basic sort of activities for something else entirely and nobody expected this to happen. There are many, many tales of really key technologies that came out kind of just as an offshoot. There's things like, I think, ATM machines are the result of number theory, the really abstract number theory. And MRI scanners, these medical scanners were never designed with that in mind, it was an offshoot of some other branch of physics. So there's loads of examples of this. And if it wasn't for blue skies research, there would be no discovery pipeline or no technology pipeline.
But having said that, I think applied research is also very important. I think it's undervalued at the moment. I think perhaps it's been historically neglected by academia and recent attempts by governments to address this by showering a little bit of money toward applied research have been viewed with suspicion by academics, and other times, they get a little irritated by this taint of money and the siphoning off of funds towards traditional research projects. There are a lot of grants out there in the United Kingdom earmarked towards people who work with industry or collaborate commercially and some scientists don't like this. They think, "Oh, that money should be spent on blue skies research."
And I guess you can't really blame the government for trying to recoup, trying to get the best bang for your buck really for this public spending. I'm all for it. I'm all for both. Personally, I left a more abstract field because I didn't feel I was making a tangible difference. And I think a lot of scientists do feel that way. But really, there's room for both and we really have to fund both.
JS: Absolutely. Speaking of which, are there areas of research that you feel are critically underfunded?
JR: This is a difficult one for me because I don't know all of research and all the science. So answering from my own field, which is the life sciences, answering for my own field of the life sciences or biomedical research, I think a lot of the focus and the money is poured into a few diseases that are seen to be especially sexy, if you know what I mean: cancer, stroke, heart disease. And of course, they're very important prevalent and lethal diseases. So, they affect a lot of people that's why it's right and proper that people focus on them, but there are many, many other problems that don't affect quite so many people, they're unfatal, they just are responsible for untold misery and they don't get funded as well.
And I'm thinking in particular of my own area, so I used to work in cancer research which every other person of the world was working on, and I got disillusioned by that and I stumbled upon a really neglected problem that really captured my interest because it's basically affecting lots and lots of elderly people. Our population is aging. I work on urinary tract infection and particularly the kind that doesn't go away, not the one-off UTI that teenage girls and young women get, but the sort of chronic never-ending recurrent UTI that's very common amongst our elderly population. It's not diagnosed very well, it's not treated very well. A lot of these patients don't have a voice and people don't think that it's a serious problem. UTI, well, that's not a serious problem. But actually, it is. It causes untold misery, it causes a massive economic burden and with antibiotic resistance on the rise worldwide, it's becoming a serious problem, but it's almost impossible to get research funding for something like that. I mean, you can do but not like cancer, not like stroke, not like heart disease. And there's hardly anyone studying it. And then that sort of causes a feedback loop. The fewer people studying a problem, the fewer splashy papers, the fewer grants you're gonna get, it's just a downward spiral of disinterest.
And I think there are a lot of areas like this that are critically underfunded mostly because they're not fashionable. And I do understand the trade-off with working on things that are serious, but I think there are a lot of things that are serious that people just don't appreciate because there's not a lot of splashy papers and literature, because there aren't that many people working on it. So really, I don't know how to solve this problem, but I think we do need to not just give all the money to a few small causes. We need to spread them more equally.
JS: So how do you think we can draw public attention to some of these underfunded areas, like the research you do?
JR: Yeah. Well, maybe I'm not doing a good job convincing the grant bodies that it's an important problem. I don't know. Maybe if I went out on the circuit and talked more about UTI, I could ramp up interest. Maybe that's an interesting way that scientists could get more interest in their topic is by talking about it to the public. Maybe that would feedback with research funding further down the road. It's really interesting idea.
JS: You touched on this a little, but can you tell me more about how funding has affected your own career?
JR: Well, I mean, I must say, I've done reasonably well at funding in my career. I can't say I've done really any worse than when I was working in cancer because, although, I was working at a trendy field, there were millions of other people fighting for the same grants. And I have to say, I've gotten some really nice funding from philanthropic donors in recent years and, in particular, patients. So this is an interesting trend of patients who happen to have a bit of money are now, like I say, always helped on giving the money to research. And so I've managed... I don't know how. I've managed to convince some of these patients that work with our clinical collaborators that my research is worth funding and they've given me lots of money. I mean, equipment and people, it's all been made possible with these incredible generosity of people giving up their own money to support my research. So I think that's one way it's affected my career, funding has. I don't know. I've done pretty well. I can't complain.
JS: That's good to hear. Now, before I let you go, I definitely wanna talk about your work with Science is Vital. How did that project come to be?
JR: Well, it all started on a sort of lazy Sunday morning or Saturday morning. I can't remember. I was on Twitter and people were... This was 2010, a while back now. People were complaining that the government had threatened to cut science funding by 40%, 40, a lot of money and then people were sort of... So I'm American as you can probably tell by my accent. All the Brits were saying, "But we what... What can we do? There's nothing we can do. Blah, blah, blah." I said, "No, no, no, come on, we can do something. This is ridiculous." I kind of said, "Let's do something." And I wrote a blog post saying, "Let's march. Let's get going to the streets." And this is back before marches were so common. They're certainly very common now. Back then, you wouldn't see a bunch of scientists out in the streets. We actually managed to organize a massive rally, a couple of thousand people showed up in white coats with really funny placards. Scientists are very funny. Bucky ball, headgear, all sorts of things. And it was a great rally.
And that's how Science is Vital started. It was a collaboration between me and then a bunch of people who wanted to get involved and then some other science groups in London. And we had a really good time, it was incredibly hard work. It was hard to persuade scientists to leave the lab even for a day and go out into the streets.
JS: I couldn't agree more. Now, just for fun, you're also a novelist who founded LabLit, a site for Literature with realistic portrayals of scientists. What led you to create this site and what do you think is the worst misconception about scientists in pop culture?
JR: So, I have long maintained an interest in scientists in fiction and this all came about in graduate school in Seattle when I was given a copy of this book called "Cantor's Dilemma" by Carl Djerassi. And it was funny, it obviously had done the rounds of the department because there's all dog-eared and beat up and there were lots of highlighter pen stuff in there. People had written on the book and they were highlighting this sort of passages of explicit biochemistry. It was a novel about scientists doing science in a lab. I've never seen that before. I was so excited.
And after I finished the book, I went to the library in the bookshelves and tried to find more, and I couldn't find any. There weren't any other novels about scientists. And it turns out there were, but hardly any. So I decided, this is ridiculous. I've got to find them all. I've got to round them all up, put them in a website, sort of curate them, and then try to convince people that it's the kind of topic you want to write about as a fiction writer.
So LabLit.com is a website devoted to laboratory culture. And so it's a great venue for aspiring authors to publish their fiction about scientists. I just want to point out, it's not science fiction. LabLit is fiction about science as a profession and set in the present day, in a world that does exist and using sort of ideas or technology that do exist today or have in the past, but it's not a futuristic kind of thing. It's not science fiction. And the website turned out to be a lot of fun. I met a lot of interesting people, a lot of authors, a lot of scientists who were just interested in telling their stories to inspire other people to write. And yeah, it's been ticking along since, gosh, almost 11 years now. And yeah, it's a labor of love.
As far as your question, what's the worst misconception of scientists in pop culture? I'd say if you go to Google right now and you Google "scientist professor" and Google Image search, you will see an amazing sight and it's basically all bunch of aging men with messy hair and glasses who look a little bit crazy. So, there is still this image of scientists as boffins, as they say, in the United Kingdom, or nerds, as you say in America. These people don't have a social life, they probably don't have a sex life, they're usually men, they're maybe half mad. Yeah. You've seen all these stereotypes before.
Things are changing, I must say, in the movies. Ever since the turn of the century, scientists have gotten to be a bit more of the good guys. So you'll see heroes, scientists are heroes and some of the villain. And I think that's a really good trend and I hope that continues because fiction is a great medium for communicating science, not communicating it, but giving a flavor of what it's like. You can entice a lot of people to come to your science museum exhibition and you'll get a couple thousand people and those are the kind of people who already like science. But you give a Hollywood blockbuster that shows science or scientists in a good light, you've done that job a million times over.
So I think it's an interesting concept using LabLit or scientists, science and fiction to kind of... And I don't wanna say sway the masses, but at least inculcate them in this really amazing profession. It's an amazing world, it's colorful, it's interesting, it's human. And we have a lot of really important messages to tell the general public, things about climate change and vaccines. And no one's gonna like us... If they don't like us, they don't know us. They don't know what we do. They fear us, they're not gonna trust us as messengers. So I think it's really important that the humanity of science really gets out there in some way or another, whether that be blogging or real life science or whether that be writing a novel about scientists. And I think, why not? I mean, there's all different ways of doing it and I think the important thing is just getting the message out.
JS: Jenny, thanks so much for joining us. What's next for you? What should our listeners be looking out for?
JR: I'm super excited about my upcoming novel, which is coming out in June, that's called "Cat Zero," and it's a tale of how a feminist virologist has to team up with a sexist mathematician to solve this mysterious cat plague that might be a bit more sinister than it first appears.
JS: That sounds like a page-turner! Thanks again, Jenny.
There's no question that funding for science is crucial. To advance our species, solve society's biggest problems and better understand the world around us, we need to support scientific research. What's more, we need a healthy mix of funding from practical, applied and theoretical research from both public and private sources. That's the only way we can continue to make the scientific advancements that are worth billions and the ones that are truly priceless.
Thank you for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at 3m.com/scienceindex. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast to catch our next episode! You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.