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6 September 2003

Science Funding

Who should set the priorities for the science research carried out with taxpayers’ money? That’s a question we’ve been examining through a series of interviews and features.

Should priorities be set by government ministers and distinguished scientists best able to judge the merits of an application? Or is an old guard of establishment scientists stifling innovation and ignoring research of interest to the public?

The Nobel prize-winning gene biologist Sydney Brenner told us that genetic medical research funding had been captured by pharmaceutical firms for their own profit. He said too much emphasis was being placed on genetically-tailored cures for self-induced problems like obesity. Public health education was more important than research into genetically-tailored cures.

Prof Brenner condemned the commercialisation of science funding and said peer review was leading to mediocre science. Many Nobel prize-winners from the past would not be able to succeed today because they would be asked to deliver results before they had time to ask the right scientific questions, he said. Talented young scientists were being denied funds because they did not have a track record.

The Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury agreed that public health policies were vitally important. He said recent changes to science funds meant that blue skies research should be supported more effectively.

Two separate features raised questions of whether the allocation of funds for medical and agricultural research really matched the interests of the public.

Although 25% of people use complementary medicine, the government confirmed to us that complementary medicine receives around 0.001% (one thousandth) of its health research funds (£1.6 million a year against £1.4 billion a year.) British researchers are now bidding for funds from the US government complementary medicine budget of $100,000.

Europe’s only professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst from Exeter University, told us that much more research funding was needed – partly to confirm whether traditional cures were efficacious, but also to ensure that they are not harmful.

In agriculture, organic farming is popular with the public and genetic modification unpopular. Yet organic receives less than one hundredth of government research funds, and a fraction of the amount of biotech. Organic gardening research receives nothing.

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