Money Makes The Lab Go Round

Caduceus By mnd.ctrl, http://www.flickr.com/photos/76578669@N00/2494389754/

Editor’s Note: Lizzie Crouch and Ben Good contributed equally to this article.

The Blast research group at Imperial College, London, is unique, from the people who carry out the research to the experiments themselves. And so when we looked into the financial support for the Blast lab’s research, it didn’t take long to uncover its unconventional nature.

“We have not supported research in the past,” explained Mrs Alison Gallico, trustee for The Soldier’s Charity (formerly The Army Benevolent Fund). But in spite of precedence, generous donations from The Soldier’s Charity, as well as a number of other veterans’ charities are the source of roughly 45% of the funding which makes the work of the Blast group at Imperial College, London, possible. This is all highly unusual.

Securing funding is a challenge for all research groups, and the Blast Lab is no exception. We met with Dr Adam Hill to better appreciate the often frustrating, but unavoidable, reality of funding research. He explained to us that funding takes up a significant amount of his day to day life.

Those who find themselves applying for grants will sympathise with the 50 or 60 pages that Adam often has to wade through to apply for these grants. The man hours invested may often feel like a wasted effort when applications are rejected. However, despite growing competition for money, the Blast lab has had a lot of success in obtaining financial backing for their work. “In the last 3 years we have put in 22 unique grant applications. We have been successful in 16 of 20, and 2 are pending,” Adam explained.

This high success rate is due to the nature of the research and the people who carry it out, both of which factor into the decision of where the lab turns for money. The Blast lab’s research, examining the effects of explosions on humans, will benefit those currently serving in the armed forces. However, as Adam explained, the group also takes into consideration veterans who have injuries, sustained during active service, that are enduring. This qualifies them to seek out non-traditional funding outlets for support.

“[The group’s funding] is approximately 45% Ministry of Defence (MOD)/Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, 45% military charities and 10% other non-military charities, including research councils,” Adam explained. A breakdown of funding sources from most other research groups would look markedly different.

Most striking is that just under half of Blast lab’s financial support comes from military charities. Adam said that the group has made the decision to approach these charities due to the fact that their work transcends the boundary between what is purely military and what is of civilian importance.

The divide between the military and civilian communities is by no means clear-cut, and ties in closely to the military covenant, a set of guidelines which defines the commitment of the United Kingdom to its serving military personnel. It is of importance due to the health issues, including injuries sustained in combat, that face the veteran community. In May of this year, the British Government announced that the covenant is to be enshrined in law as part of the Armed Forces Bill. At some stage in their career an injured soldier will transition from active service to being a veteran with an injury.

The UK‘s armed forces provide health care for those who are currently in active service. Technically, they have no responsibility to provide for the veteran community as well. However, injuries sustained whilst in active service may be permanent. At some point, the National Health Service, supported by the third sector, become the providers of health care for soldiers who have returned to civilian life. Clearly defining when this transition of responsibility should take place is difficult.

The Soldier’s Charity considers the research carried out by the Blast lab to be an important bridge between health issues faced by the armed forces and veterans. “Our overall policy is to support other military and national charities which look after the needs of the serving and retired Army community,” explained Alison. “The Director of Grants, Col. Cummings, supported [Blast’s research] and the Grants Committee took the view that this was work of a preventive nature that we could encompass within our charitable objectives.”

When the Blast research group considers the source of the charities’ money, they come across personal and ethical obligations which they have to address. “I think the way you have to have to see it is, who’s given the money to the charity?” said Adam. He explained that the acid-test is considering what an elderly lady, who has taken money out of her pension and put it in a collecting tin, would want her donation to be spent on. Adam, and the research group, need to be able to justify, in their own mind, their work to that generous lady and millions like her who have invested a significant portion of their limited finances to the charity. When financial support for research is a result of a targeted approach such as this, there are obligations, if not explicitly laid out, that need to be met.

The group must maintain a strong relationship with all of their financial backers. “As this is the first time we have sponsored research, we need to have regular, high quality feed-back to reassure the Trustees that the money we are putting up is well spent,” Alison said. “Paul Cummings and I were fascinated and delighted with the whole-day presentation we saw on the project. However, [the lab] needs to consider how it will present its work to trustee meetings where it may only have half an hour,” she added. The Blast lab recognizes that taking complex science and presenting it clearly and concisely without patronising the listener is a refined skill.

Although this is a novel, and effective, method of getting funding for their work, Adam believes that there is a limited amount of research that can be justified from this targeted form of funding. Adam explained that he needs to be very clear with his colleagues that the research they propose “has a very definite application after the funding period and is not just blue-skies, basic science.”

However, it is promising that charities who have not considered giving grants for scientific research in the past could be an additional funding source. The relationship between Blast and The Soldier’s Charity may prove extremely important in seeing whether this route of funding could be expanded.

“Trustees will be considering whether research might play a larger part in its spectrum of activities. The performance of Imperial Blast as a partner is therefore important in influencing our decisions on whether to support other research projects,” said Alison.

This burden of responsibility is not lost on the group. Adam and the rest of his lab are aware of the importance of the relationships they have established with prestigious veterans charities. While this combination of funding pathways is not open to all research, the connections forged by Blast could open doors for similar collaborations in the future.

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