I’m keen on planning for the future. Whether it is a plan for the near future, like a to-do list, or a plan for the far future, like a bucket list, I’m in favour of it. In part, that is because research funding is all about planning for the future.
A long time ago, when I was just a young whisperer, I used to feel guilty when I had to prod researchers to write funding applications. They were all enormously busy. A common refrain was “I don’t have time for research.”
Then a wonderful physicist, Bill van Megen, changed my attitude. Exactly what he said to me is now lost in time, but it was something like this:
I enjoy writing grant applications. It’s the only time I ever get to plan for the future. The rest of the time I’m either working on experiments or writing up experiments. Grant applications let me think about what comes next.
He was right. More importantly, as an activity, research enquiry inhabits the tension between the past and the future. Most of the time we are looking at the past: What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? But at the same time we have our eye on the future. That is, will it happen again?
Finally, most of us are actively working towards improving the future. That is, we are trying to understand the world as it is now so that we can make it better. Saving the future. Inspiring stuff.
If you really want a plan to improve the world, you can’t go past the Millennium Development Goals. They aim to:
- Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
- Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day. This target has been met.
- Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people.
- Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.
- Achieve universal primary education.
- Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.
- Promote gender equality and empower women.
- Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015.
- Reduce child mortality.
- Reduce by two thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate.
- Improve maternal health.
- Reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio.
- Achieve, by 2015, universal access to reproductive health.
- Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
- Have halted by 2015 and begun to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS.
- Achieve, by 2010, universal access to treatment for HIV/AIDS for all those who need it.
- Have halted by 2015 and begun to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases.
- Ensure environmental sustainability.
- Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources.
- Reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss.
- Halve by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. This target has been met for water, but not yet for sanitation.
- By 2020, to have achieved a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers. This target has been met.
- Develop a global partnership for development.
- Develop further an open, rule-based, predictable, non-discriminatory trading and financial system.
- Address the special needs of the least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing States.
- Deal comprehensively with developing countries’ debt.
- In co-operation with pharmaceutical companies, provide access to affordable, essential drugs in developing countries.
- In cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications.
We have reached one or two of these targets. We have made measurable progress on almost every other one [7.1 Mbyte PDF]. Some of this progress has been remarkable.
With only a year to go, though, we won’t achieve all of them. That doesn’t mean that the Millennium Development Goals were quixotic. As a global community, we set goals with specific targets and made significant progress towards meeting them. We tried.
Well, sort of. Some people gave more than others, and some tried harder than others. Overall, though, the Millennium Development Goals have been an enormous success.
In 2015, the Millennium Development Goals expire.
What comes next? At the moment, the world is engaged in a giant conversation about how to do this again, only better. The Association of Commonwealth Universities are encouraging universities to engage in this conversation. I think that’s a great idea. One of the key criticisms of the Millennium Development Goals was that there wasn’t a strong enough evidence base behind them. Isn’t that what we – as researchers – do, produce evidence bases?
Another criticism was that the people most central to the issues weren’t involved enough in the planning. Aren’t we recruiting students from all over the world? Don’t we do research in every corner of the globe? Can’t we help?
More particularly, won’t you help? Beyond 2015, what will you be working on? What will you be doing to change the future? Sometimes, one of the things that prevents us from doing the right thing is the feeling that we are alone. Insignificant. Powerless. Don’t worry, you won’t be alone. There is a whole world of people who want to work with you. People who will fund your work, critique your work, publish your work, and – most importantly – implement your work.
Research funding is particularly important in this area. Research funding acts as a force multiplier. People doing good work can do more work, and better work, when they are properly funded. Funding doesn’t just help the base work, either. It helps to disseminate the work, too, to take it where it is needed most.
That’s why funds like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have built whole funding schemes around the Millennium Development Goals. It is why the Millennium Development Goals underpin the aid programs of Australia and many other countries. And, of course, the funding provided by most United Nations programs.
It doesn’t matter if your contribution seems small. Progress through research needs enormous amounts of evidence from a great variety of directions. Even work that seems very tangental can be important. Statistical work on probability theory and copulas may help with drought prediction, for example.
I’m not saying that you should change your career direction to focus on global problems (although it’s not a bad idea…). What I’m saying is that you should understand how your work fits into the big picture. Look outside your discipline. Look beyond your country. How does your work relate to global problems and global issues? Is your work contributing, in some way, to global solutions?
How are you planning to help?
Thanks to the Association of Commonwealth Universities for inviting the Research Whisperer to contribute to their ‘Beyond 2015‘ campaign. Inspiring stuff. Happy to help.