Science Funding: Big Data, Big Spending?

The UK government has committed to spending almost six billion pounds on research infrastructure over the next 5 years. Investments of £1.1 billion per annum from 2016 to 2021 mean the potential to reshape science research infrastructure and secure the future of the UK as a knowledge-based economy.

But lets not get too excited just yet. Of course it all depends on how the money is spent. With competing interests and many projects, new and old, vying for a slice of the funds, the billion pound investment can only stretch so far. In recent years prominent scientists have spoken out about (and against) the way science funding is allocated. With media pressure continuing to rise with the increase in online social platforms it seems that the projects that can grab headlines are doomed to be favoured over less ‘glamorous’ options.

Yet we have the opportunity to have our own say, to ignore media hype and to comment on what really matters. The Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) has launched a consultation exercise to gather a wide range of views. Science is truly a field that affects us all, however, it is plagued by a lack of public scientific literacy. This is something that needs to be improved if we are to make this an inclusive debate.

In the BIS document ‘Creating the Future: A 2020 Vision for Scientific Research’ Dominic Tildesley (Co-Chair, e-Infrastructure Leadership Council) says

The potential impact of big data, whether harvested from the real world or generated by High Performance Computing (HPC) based modelling and simulation, is so significant that it will transform all areas of business, government and research. Sustained investment in our HPC and e-infrastructure is therefore essential if the UK is to remain globally competitive in science and business.”

The big change that needs to be made if we are to harness the full potential of future investments in scientific research is how we deal with data. Data access and availability may not create glamorous headlines but it will have real results for scientific progress as a whole.

The Guardian Science Blog reports that overspecialisation could limit the UK’s capacity to respond and adapt to unforeseen challenges and opportunities. Harnessing the power of the already available data could have greater potential than simply generating more, which will continue to be used in isolation. Funding should not be limited to specific technology areas but to enable a breadth of excellence.

Now is the time to really put data access to the top of the agenda. It is an integral step to secure the future of UK Science.

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