Working hard for the money

What goes wrong with research spending? It’s a good question to ask. In some ways research spending is like advertising spending. “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.[1]” Globally billions are spent on advertising so you might say – it must be working. In fact, far more is spent on advertising than is ever available for research in the aviation and aerospace world.

Research spending is a precious asset because of its bounds. Even so, a great deal of research spending is lost on activities that deliver no or little benefit. It’s true Governments, institutions and industry don’t often put-up funds for vague and imprecise aspirations or outlandish predictions but nevertheless money goes down a sink hole on far too many occasions.

A reluctance to take tough decisions or at the other extreme of the spectrum a relish in disruption plagues research funding decision making. Bad projects can live long lives and good projects get shut down before their time. My observations are that these are some of the cases that crop-up all too often across the world.

Continuing to service infrastructure that cost a great deal to set-up. It’s the classic problem of having spent large sums of money on something and thereby the desperation to see a benefit encourages more spending. Nobody likes to admit defeat or that their original predictions were way off the mark.

Circles of virtue are difficult to address. For example, everyone wants to see a more efficient and sustainable use of valuable airspace therefore critics of spending towards that objective are not heard. That is even if substantial spending is misdirected or hopelessly optimistic.

Glamourous and sexy subjects, often in the public limelight, get a leg-up when it come to the evaluation of potential research projects. Politicians love press photographs that associate them with something that looks like a solution in the public mind. Academics are no different in that respect.

Behold unto the gurus! There’s conferences and symposiums where ideas are hammered home by persuasive speakers and charismatic thinkers. Amongst these forums there are innovative ideas but also those that get more consideration than they warrant.

Narrow focused recommendations can distort funding decision making. With the best of intent an investigation or study group might highlight a deficiency that needs work, but it sits in a distinct niche of interest. It can be a push in direction the opposite of a Pareto analysis[2].

Highlighting these points is easier than fixing the underlying problems. It’s a good start to be aware of them before pen and ink meets, and a contract is signed.

[1] statement on advertising, credited to both John Wanamaker (1838-1922) and Lord Leverhulme (1851-1925).


Author: johnwvincent

Our man in Southern England

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