Abdel Baset al-Megrahi

The recent appearance of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi at a pro-Gadaffi rally in Libya has reinvigorated the debate about whether or not he should have been released from Jail on compassionate grounds. Firstly I should state that the 1988 bombing of the Pan Am flight that crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland was a truly atrocious act. All 259 people on the flight died as did 11 residents of Lockerbie.

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was convicted of the bombing and sentenced to life in prisonment. He was, however, released in August 2009 on compassionate grounds as he was suffering from terminal cancer and was given only 3 months to live. This was a highly controversial decision and was widely criticised. That Abdel Baset el-Megrahi is still alive (in 2011) has also cause some (including William Hague, the Foreign Secretary) to claim that the medical evidence was flawed (in fact William Hague apparently suggested it was worthless).

I have no knowledge of whether or not the medical evidence was flawed, but this does remind me of a fantastic book by Stephen Jay Gould, called Full House, in which he discusses his own cancer diagnoses and how doctors misinterpreted the statistical data. I read the book a long time ago, so don’t remember it exactly, but my memory is as follows. Stephen Jay Gould was diagnosed with cancer and the medical staff seemed very reluctant to discuss his prognosis. He discovered that the cancer was very aggressive and that often patients would die within 8 months. However, he discovered that this was actually the median lifetime and that the distribution was very skewed. Half of patients diagnosed would die within 8 months but the other half had a reasonable chance of living for many years.

Stephen Jay Gould was diagnosed in 1992 and died in 2002, so in fact lived for 20 years after being diagnosed despite the median lifetime being 8 months. I don’t know if this is relevant to the al-Megrahi case, but it does suggest that him still being alive does not necessarily mean that the medical diagnosis was flawed. It could well be that he has an aggressive cancer and that typically patients would die within a few months. If a few months is the median lifetime, then him still being alive after 2 years may not be that unlikely. Although the diagnosis my be correct, it could well be that the prognosis was flawed. If the medical evidence had suggested that he had a reasonable chance of living for a number of years, the decision as to whether or not to release him may have been different. I should add that I don’t really have a view as to whether or not he should have been released. I’m simply suggesting that him still being alive does not mean that there was anything wrong with the medical diagnosis.


EPSRC Fellowships

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has recently released new guidelines for its fellowships. What is most controversial (in my view at least) is that they have decided to identify – quite specifically – the areas that they will fund. To use their exact words “Under this new fellowship framework, fellowship applications will be invited only in specific research areas that are linked to our strategic priorities”. Those outside those areas (but still in areas covered by EPSRC) are prohibited from applying.

In some respects, something like the above has always happened. The government decides how much money to give to the research councils. This is then divided amongst the different research councils and they then produce strategic plans/roadmaps. Researchers apply for funding by submitting grant applications that are assessed by peers and then by a grants panel. If something doesn’t fit within the strategic plan it could be rejected even if judged to be excellent science. This, however, wouldn’t typically happen since the strategic plan would probably be based on what is currently of interest and something that was not of interest to those reviewing or on the panel would not generally be regarded as excellent.

However, there is always a bit of flexibility. A proposal could really impress the panel and reviewers and be funded even if it doesn’t strictly satisfy the strategic plans. Also, these strategic plans are never particularly specific, which gives some flexibility. Those writing proposals know the general areas that are of interest and then write proposals, in those areas, that they hope will impress reviewers and panel members. The problem I have with EPSRC’s new Fellowship guidelines is that it seems to set, fairly specifically, the areas that can be funded. This must be very disappointing for those in other areas who had hoped to compete for Fellowships. What about PhD students who may now be getting the message that their areas isn’t currently of interest? Also, who decides? I know there were probably panels and committees, but this seems a little unsatisfactory.

It also seems rather unnecessary. Either these are areas of interest, in which case most of those Fellowships funded would have been in these general areas. If not, how did they become the areas that were suddenly important?

I also have a fundamental concern about this type of thing. I probably won’t be able to explain my thoughts as clearly as I would like, but this feels as though researchers are explicitly becoming a resource to be exploited directly. Research councils decide (as the representatives of UK plc) what research needs to be done. They request submission of proposals (tenders) and decide which to accept. Researchers essentially subcontract from their universities to the research councils and carry out the research that has been requested. To a certain extent, the introduction of full economic costing (fEC), in which part of an academic’s salary is directly covered by the research councils, makes it feel like this has already started happening. There is also certainly a push from universities to make this happen (i.e., they need us to cover part of our salary and so we’d better get funded).

The way I’ve always imagined things working is that I’m employed by a university to teach and do research. I decide what research I’d like to do (what do I find interesting). To do this I would typically need some funding, so I write research proposals and try to convince reviewers and grant panels that my work will be interesting. Of course, there is some feedback. I need to do research that could get funded, but my (and others) interest in an area will also influence what a research council might regard as worth funding. Essentially the research is mine (in the sense that I’m deciding what I want to do). I’m not doing research on behalf of a research council who represent UK plc.

What is, of course, important is that the money spent funding research must be beneficial. Exactly what that benefit is could be difficult to measure, but essentially we do need to know that we – as a society – are better off because we fund research than we would be if we didn’t. This, in my opinion, does not mean that every individual research project needs to have some well-defined benefit. It could simply be that if I’m enthusiastic about my research, I will enthuse my students and hence benefit the next generation. It could be that my research will influence something else that will have impact in the future. It could be that I’m solving a problem that is simply interesting to society at the moment, but doesn’t actually have any immediate economic benefit. It could even be that my research will have some direct benefit now. Although predefining the research areas very specifically in advance is not necessarily inconsistent with what I describe, it does seem quite concerning. I hope it’s not the beginning of a slippery slope towards research councils behaving as if they are the customers who decide what research needs to be done with the university researchers being the sub-contractors who carry out the research projects on their behalf. I would certainly find it difficult to get enthusiastic about such a system, and anyway who would be deciding what specific research areas are of interest.