Today the front page story in Times Higher Education concerned a letter, Modest revolt to save research from red tape a letter signed by 20 people (including me).
My reason for signing the letter was that I am interested in how to get good science, and I am concerned that the government, and many vice-chancellors, are getting it wrong. Read also the wonderful essay. The Mismeasurement of Science, by Peter Lawrence (who is one of the signatories of the letter).
The letter had an accompanying article by Zoe Corbyn, Scientists call for a revolt against grant rule they claim will end blue-skies research, “Letter blames research councils’ policies for fall in number of UK Nobel laureates, reports Zoë Corbyn”.
It also had a leading article by Ann Mroz, Leader: Short-term outlook, no blue skies, with the subtitele “By forcing academics to do R&D for industry, ministers stifle the type of curiosity-driven work that delivers the biggest bangs”.
The “revolt” proposed in the letter is very modest indeed. We propose merely that those who are asked to referee grants will confine themselves to the part of the application that they are able to judge. In most cases that will not include the two pages of arm-waving guesswork about how the results might save the nation twenty years hence.
Everyone loves the great discoveries, but great discoveries are very rare If you want them, you must hire the best people you can, let them get on with it, and accept failure. Lots and lots of failure.
It’s a pity, but nobody knows any better way to do it. But at least please don’t try to impose worse ways.
The writers point to the fact that since 1980, roughly the time when bureaucracy started to run rampant,
” . . . the changes have resulted in almost a tenfold decrease in the rate at which researchers at UK universities win Nobel prizes.”
OK, it’s true that we have no way to be sure that the undoubted increase in top-down control has actually been the cause of the smaller number of Nobel prizes, but there is no doubt that it has wasted a great deal of time that could have been spent more profitably. It’s intriguing that 1980 is also the time that Francis Wheen identified as being roughly the start of what I like to call the age of endarkenment.
“But what is the point of having a second-to-none academic sector if its commitment to innovation is not matched by commerce and business? British industry’s relatively low investment in science and technology has long been a serious problem that our proxies and governments have consistently ignored. Academics are a much easier target.
While understanding that our proxies are often in a difficult situation, they must become more courageous in dealing with Government or they won’t have an enterprise worth protecting. In recent years, they have acquiesced in subjecting academics to withering barrages of control, and researchers’ lives have become bureaucratic nightmares.
The latest turn of the screw inflicts yet another distracting burden, namely that of requiring prospective researchers to write “a two-page impact plan in addition to the case for support”.
We the undersigned suggest that it is time for a modest revolt. We would urge that reviewers for grant applications decline invitations to take these additional pages into consideration and confine their assessments to matters in which they are demonstrably competent.
Indeed, in research worthy of the name, we are not aware of anyone who would be competent at foretelling specific future benefits and therefore in complying with the request in any meaningful manner.”
I cannot speak for the other signatories, but I expect they, like I, have nothing against industry, and nothing against applied research. The problem. of course, is is that the really big developments are never obvious at the time they are made, and still less at the time you are writing a grant to do the work.
The government, and far less excusably, the Research Councils, often appear to be populated by the sort of people who would have told Michael Faraday to stop wasting his time with those wires and coils, and get to work on something really useful like designing better leather washers for steam pumps.
Certainly there can be no more inappropriate time than this to be urging universities to act more like businesses. The sight of a bunch of very highly paid bankers who proved incapable of distinguishing good investments from worthless ones is pitiful. That was their job and they failed to do it on a grand scale, The fact that the bastions of conservatism, who have spent most of their lives telling us how wicked it is to bail out failing businesses are now taking many thousands of pounds from me, inspires feelings that are perhaps better left unwritten.
It is all part of a much more general move to trust nobody to do a job properly, and, worse, to then construct a hierarchy of regulators that consists largely of people who have themselves failed at the job they are supposed to be regulating. They then lay down the law about how to do the job to those who have succeeded.
Sadly, this process is evident not only in government, and not only in Research Councils, but also within universities themselves. We have the managerial culture that disempowers anyone who does real research and teaching. We have vice-chancellors who support degrees in various sorts of quackery which they can’t possibly believe to be true, like Professor Petts of Westminster (where Amethysts emit high Yin energy), and Michael Pittilo of Robert Gordon’s University Aberdeen. We have vice chancellors who defend corrupt practices by the pharmaceutical industry, as in Sheffield. We have lunatic assessment targets, as at Imperial Medical School. And of course we have some curious “Morals in High Places“. And we have the vice-chancellors’ Trades Union, UUK, that does nothing to stop these things.
It really is time that the Research Councils, and university vice-chancellors resisted a bit more strongly government pressure to do things in a way that can only harm the economy (not to mention the universities) in the long run.
They have nothing to lose but their knighthoods.
One of the signatories of the letter mentioned this beautiful quotation..
“Every important discovery is by definition unpredictable. If it were predictable, it would not be important.”
Freeman Dyson (speech when receiving the Britannica Award for excellence in the dissemination of learning for the benefit of mankind, part reported in the Independent, March 12th 1990)
“I intend forthwith to copy and paste this into the section of any grant application which asks for impact etc. No more and no less.”
There has already been some criticism of our letter. It has come, though, not from scientists, but from “science policy professionals”, a new breed of hangers-on who mostly seem to be too far from the coal-front to know how science works.
Testing hypotheses is written by the head the Research Councils UK Strategy Unit. He chooses to concentrate on the secondary matter of Nobel prizes, rather than answer the real questions. Fortunately Philip Moriarty has tried to keep him to the point, though without any very satisfactory reply.
The Prometheus blog from the USA has an article by Ryan Meyer that has given rise to some comments and questions. I have asked him to explain to me what he means by the “social context” of work on single ion channels.
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