Coffee and ecology: the curious case of science funding

Postgrads setting up for mammal monitoring. What sort of research future do they have?
Post grads setting up for mammal monitoring on Onawe Peninsula.

Science is a curious thing. There must be few professions where you train people for at least seven years, bring them to a high level of expertise, but then don’t give them reliable means to do their job or to use their skills. Science funding (finding the resources to actually do science) is extremely competitive and there are far more scientists and science projects than can be funded. For example, New Zealand’s Marsden Fund, a major source of research money, has a success rate of less that 10%. That’s a lot of rejection to deal with, a common theme in academia. What do scientists do if they don’t access this funding? Well we ferret around to find scraps of funding from other sources which, if way less lucrative, have marginally better success rates. It’s all a bit like if I owned a cafe and trained 10 baristas, giving them their own espresso machines, all of which were good at producing coffees, and then giving beans to only one. The other nine could make some coffees if they found some beans elsewhere. But mostly I might get them to clean the cafe or take customer orders or go home. This is despite the fact that there are lots of customers waiting. Science has this scenario. We are all highly trained. We usually have our own labs, research technicians, postgraduate students, equipment and experience. There is no shortage of pressing things to do research on.

How would I select my ‘winning’ barista? This might be fairly difficult as each barista has different strengths. One might be fast, another might make great patterns on the top of the drink, a third might make a great flat white, a fourth might excel at cappuccinos. I could ask a couple of other baristas from another cafe to make a choice (each with their own preferences, maybe they don’t like flat whites). The judges would come to a decision, pick a winner, and point out that it was shame there could only be one as all of the baristas made good coffees (and had made good coffees in the past). This would be of little consolation to the baristas. Science is very like that (except that where the baristas might take their machines and find another cafe to work in, the scientists pretty much have to stay where they are). If this doesn’t sound like a good way to make the best use of expertise then welcome to the world of research!

coffee cup
Science is like coffee…

One curly question when comparing scientists is the value of experience. In the cafe scenario how much value should be placed on someone who has consistently made good coffees for many years as opposed to a new barista who has the potential to make great coffees in the future? In science much is made of the track record or history of a scientist. Of course, if you only went with this rule then the same people would be funded over and over and new scientists would never get the chance to do the science that would get them funding. With this in mind there is a conscious effort in the science world to ensure that early career scientist also have a chance of receiving funding.

In ecology the International Network of Next-Generation Ecologists (INNGE) was set up in 2010 to help early career ecologists receive the support that they require to become competitive in the funding world. To this end INNGE have organised early career conferences, mentoring systems for journal reviewers, established a network within Africa and created EcoBloggers, a site which aggregates 90+ ecology blogs (including EcoLincNZ). And lots more. A new initiaitive by INNGE, covered in an article in Ecosphere, is to set up a Global Community Innovation Platform (GCIP). A GCIP includes improving connections between global and local communities, supporting new and emerging research areas, and serving as a repository for the community’s information. Basically, the future is connected, collaboration across borders is vital and data will be more and more open. All of these help with the quality of ecological science that can be done and enhance a researcher’s CV making them more competitive when it comes to getting science funding. The article by many of the INNGE organisers, including Lincoln’s Tim Curran, explains the many benefits of the ecology GCIP and what can be done by joining. Will this help new researchers get funding? Probably. Does it fix the odd funding system that we have? No, but it will help new researchers play the game that they find themselves in. That is, until funders wake up and smell the coffee!





Leave a Reply