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  • Buddy, can you spare a dime?

    Fern Davies
    • Author: Ellen Paul

      Polish up your tin cups, people. Tough times ahead...

    [update 7 November 2014: Tim Birkhead's campaign was a great success - he has now reached 102% of his fundraising goals! However, for those in the U.S., keep reading anyway]


    Every year, we hear the same refrain: research funding is insufficient. However much Congress allocates, it is never enough. When said by the biomedical folks, I just chuckle.


    Folks – you have NO idea what “insufficient” really means. And even though the National Science Foundation has little compared to the National Institutes of Health, it still had $5.81 billion in its Research and Related Activities account for basic research, not to mention another $486 million in the Education and Human Resources account, which, among other things, funds graduate research fellowships, research at undergraduate schools, and early career development. Consider the plight of researchers – the few remaining! - at the U.S. Geological Survey who have almost no research funding and are thus forced to beg other government agencies for contracts; they have no funding to travel to scientific society meetings and often work in facilities so dilapidated that buildings have been condemned.


    And things are getting worse. It is becoming commonplace to see young researchers trying to scrape together pennies and nickels with Kickstarter campaigns. That’s worrisome enough – if young researchers can’t find funding, they are not likely to complete their degrees. Net result – fewer ornithologists in the future.


    Just when you think it can’t get any worse, this blow-to-the-gut news from renowned researcher Tim Birkhead reaches your inbox:



    For the last 42 years I have maintained a long-term study of Common Guillemots (
    Uria aalge; known as
    Common Murres in North America) on Skomer Island, Wales. Earlier this year the Welsh government chose not to continue to fund this study even though we had just experienced the worst seabird disaster for several decades in which over 40,000 seabirds, including many guillemots (and including many of our colour-marked individuals from Skomer) starved to death as a result of persistent storms.


    The aim of the study has been two-fold: (i) to understand how the population 'works', and (ii) to provide a scientifically robust monitoring programme which quantifies (annually) numbers, survival, timing of breeding, breeding success and chick diet.


    Concern over the lack of funding prompted the journal Nature to ask me to provide and account of the situation, which I have done here:



    And because there seems to be no other way be able to continue the study I have resorted to crowd-sourcing



    If you can help I will be extremely grateful. The support I have had already is breath-taking, and we have recently reached half way point towards the target


    Another article
    about the situation appeared in the Guardian)



    It is beginning to look like ornithological research will go the way of the murres. That such desperately needed research conducted by so decorated an ornithologist (including the Elliott Coues award from the American Ornithologists’ Union) could be hinging on coins dropped into an electronic tin cup is baffling, discouraging, and deeply worrisome. If Tim Birkhead can’t get funding…?


    For those in the U.S., things may soon take a turn for the much worse. The conservatives in Congress have already demanded that NSF fund primarily “research in the national interest.”


    The “First Act” that was introduced in the House in May has yet to make it through that chamber, but once the Senate turns red, legislation of this sort could easily make it through both the House and Senate. Thus far, the focus has been on the social sciences, but it doesn’t take much to wonder how long it will be before the biological sciences make the hit list.

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