Science versus the financial crisis

There comes a time in every PhD student’s career when they suffer an existential crisis and question the social worth of the research they are doing. This might come at a time when a week’s worth (or longer) of experiments have given nothing but negative results, when they break that really expensive piece of equipment everyone in the department uses, or if they are asked that inevitable question after explaining the title of their thesis at a house party: “So how is that relevant In the real world?”.

Scientists should be encouraged to question and think about the research they are doing in the context of wider society. The research that many of us do is funded by the taxpayer and we are given the opportunity to justify and explain our research to non-scientific audiences by participating in public outreach events such as the national Big Bang Fair1.

However this blog post aims to present a tongue in cheek look at the cost of scientific research, and how there needs to be an element of perspective when quantifying the negative results that are inevitable in research, to the taxpayer. Realistically every failed experiment is far, far less than a drop in the ocean of our economy.

The UK currently spends ~0.65% of GDP on scientific research2, and there is a campaign to increase this to 0.8% so it is in line with other countries in the G83.  As I am sure you are all aware in 2008 the UK suffered a financial crisis that resulted in the need to bail out a number of banks, including the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds. The true cost of bailing out the banks to the taxpayer will be incredibly hard to quantify, however in this article I will use the figure of £123.9 bn, which was the cash injection for loan and share purchases4. Please take into consideration that this is likely to be a gross underestimate of the true cost to the taxpayer!

£123.9 bn is a lot of money, and a sum which is quite hard to comprehend on paper, so here I present a biochemist’s wish-list of some of the things that could have been bought instead:

How many years worth of research funding? As of June 2013 George Osbourne will keep the UK’s research and development budget at £4.6bn per annum2. The initial cash injection used to bail out the banks is therefore equivalent to more than 25 years worth of scientific research funding. Now I’m sure you can appreciate, a lot of science can happen in a quarter of a century, and we have come a long way since 1989!

How many Human Genome Projects? The sequencing of the human genome was a monumental undertaking, and its completion was a pivotal moment in scientific history. It utilised £1.8 bn of publicly funded money in the US5. 68 projects of similar importance and scope could have been funded with the money used to stabilise the British banking system.

How many Diamond Light Sources?  The Diamond Light Source is the UK’s national synchrotron. A synchrotron produces intense beams of light at wavelengths ranging between X-rays and far infrared, and has many uses to a vast array of scientific disciplines, including materials science, engineering, and the life sciences. One use of this facility is to use the X-rays to obtain structural information about proteins and other macromolecular complexes and is therefore improving our understanding of how proteins act at a molecular level. The cost to build the Diamond synchrotron was £260 million6. Therefore the cost of bailing out the banks equates to 476.5 synchrotrons.

How many PhD students? The average UK PhD student, if funded by a research council such as the BBSRC, probably obtains a stipend of ~£13590 per annum. Over 4 years of a PhD this equates to £54,360. Instead of bailing out the banks, the money could have funded 2.28 million (that is equivalent to 18x the population of Norwich) PhD students worth of stipend over 4 years. (Admittedly this is only the stipend and doesn’t include the cost of university tuition fees and research budgets, but still that is quite a lot of people!)

How many PCR thermocyclers? The development of the polymerase chain reaction revolutionised molecular biology as we know it. This technique allows for the rapid amplification of a particular DNA sequence, and is therefore used for a wide variety of applications including producing DNA sequences for cloning and genetic fingerprinting. Kary Mullis and Michael Smith were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for the development of this technology. For this reaction, a PCR thermocycler is needed, which costs around £2000. Most biology labs will have at least one, if not multiple, and if the bailout money had been used to buy them, every person living in the UK could have a personal one.

How many sequencing reactions? If you have managed to clone the piece of DNA you are interested in, you are likely to want to get it sequenced to make sure it is correct. For a sequence of DNA that is 1000 base pairs in length we usually pay £4.95. That is 25 billion sequencing reactions worth of sequencing reactions, or 25,000,000,000,000 base pairs of DNA!

The pipette – essential to any molecular biologist

How many pipettes? The pipette is the workhorse of any molecular biologist, useful for pipetting small quantities of liquid accurately and if used a lot, or inappropriately, is a potential cause of repetitive strain injury. A good pipette will cost ~£100. 1.239bn pipettes could have been bought with the bail out money. It’s always useful to have a couple of spares lying around, in case you lose one.

How many coffees? Last, but definitely not least, is the coffee. This is the foundation upon which the research establishment is run. A cup of coffee at our workplace costs 75p. 165bn extra cups of coffee could have been consumed, that’s ~23 cups of coffee for each person in the world, and also 12,375 metric tons of caffeine (if we assume 75mg per cup) ingested, if we hadn’t bailed out the banks. If your research group is lucky and has invested in a Nespresso coffee machine, where each capsule costs 30p, there would be even more coffee.

Now in this blog post I am not advocating wasting money on unimportant research or wasting resources, I am not suggesting that this sum of money should be invested in scientific research (although biased as I am working in this industry and of course I would like to see further investment, I am no economist and would think it would be a bad idea if I was to run the national budget as there would be a definite increase in the investment in caffeinated beverages), and this is not an attempt at a critique of the government’s handling of the economy.

Instead it is an analysis of scale. It is very hard to quantify the tangible benefit of scientific research, whether publicly or privately funded, to wider society. Although there may be an economic market for goods that are directly produced based around scientific research, there is no real economic market to measure how the collective information generated by scientific research influences the economy or contributes to social value. The importance of a scientific publication in a particular field can be measured by its citation index, but this doesn’t take into consideration how serendipitous discovery in basic fundamental research can influence the economy.

Despite not being able to directly measure the social impact scientific research has, and admittedly if the British banking system had collapsed we would probably be in a worse financial crisis where science funding would be cut, it is still interesting to think that the short term stability of the British banking system in 2008, was worth the same as 25 years worth of research funding.

If I have to justify the research I do- I’d say it is pretty good value for money.









By Richard Payne – a third year PhD student in the lab of Prof Sarah O’Connor


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