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This classic was published in issue 1692 of New Scientist magazine, 25 November 1989.  Frank Watt was head of the Scanning Proton Microprobe Unit in the Department of Physics at Oxford University. He wrote for the New Scientist an article on Microscopes with proton power.

In the light of yesterday’s fuss about research funding, Modest revolt to save research from red tape , this seemed like a good time to revive Watt’s article. It was written near to the end of the reign of Margaret Thatcher, about a year before she was deposed by her own party. It shows how little has changed.

It is now the fashion for grant awarding agencies to ask what percentage of your time will be spent on the project.  I recently reviewed a grant in which the applicants had specified this to four significant figures, They’d
pretended they knew, a year before starting the work that they could say how much time they’d spend with an accuracy better than three hours.  Stupid questions evoke stupid answers.

The article gave rise to some political follow-up in New Scientist, here and here.

Playing the game – The art of getting money for research

  • New Scientist
  • 25 November 1989
  • FRANK WATT

WELL, that’s it,’ thought the Captain. ‘We have the best ship in the world, the most experienced crew, and navigators par excellence. All we need now is a couple of tons of ship’s biscuits and it’s off to the ends of the world.’

NRC (Nautical Research Council) grant application no MOD2154, September 1761. Applicant: J. Cook.

Aim: To explore the world.

Requirements: Supplies for a three-year voyage.

Total cost: Pounds sterling 21 7s 6d.

January 1762: Application MOD2154,rejected by the Tall Ships subcommittee
of the NRC.

Reasons for rejection:

(a) No stated goal.

(b) No details of voyage beyond Africa.

(c) Insufficient details regarding any future discoveries.

‘Damn,’ thought the Captain, ‘that’s nailed our vitals to the plank good and
proper.’ ‘Come back in six months,’ he told his sturdy crew.

NRC grant application no MOD2279, April 1762. Applicant J. Cook.

Aim: To explore the world beyond Africa in a clockwise direction and discover a large continent positioned between New Guinea and the South Pole.

Requirements: Supplies for a three-year voyage.

Total cost: Pounds sterling 21 7s 7d (adjusted for inflation).

September 1762: Application MOD2279 rejected by the Castle and Moats subcommittee
of the NRC.

Reasons for rejection.

(a) Why discover a large continent when there are hundreds of castles in Britain.

(b) It is highly unlikely that Cook’s ship will fit into the average moat.

‘Damn,’ thought the Captain, ‘shiver me timbers, the application has gone to the wrong committee.’ ‘Come back in six months,’ he told his sturdy crew.

Dear NRC, Why did our application MOD2279 go to the Castle and Moats subcommittee instead of the Tall Ships committee? Yours sincerely, James Cook.

Dear Mr Cock, The Tall Ships subcommittee has been rationalised, and has been replaced by the Castle and Moats subcommittee and the Law and Order subcommittee.

Yours sincerely, NRC.

‘Damn,’ thought the Captain, ‘rummage me topsail, we’ll never get off the ground like this. I had better read up on this new chaos theory.’ In fact the Captain did not do this, but instead took advice from an old sea dog who had just been awarded a grant of Pounds sterling 2 million from the emergency drawbridge fund to research the theory of gravity.

NRC Application no MOD2391, January 1763 (to be considered by the Law and Order subcommittee). Applicant J. Cook.

Aim: Feasibility study for the transportation of rascals, rogues and vagabonds to a remote continent on the other side of the world. Initial pilot studies involve a three-year return journey to a yet undiscovered land mass called Australia .

Requirements: Supplies for a three-year voyage.

Total cost: Pounds sterling 21 7s 8d (again adjusted for inflation).

Dear Mr Coko, We are pleased to inform you that your application MOD2391 has been successful. Unfortunately, due to the financial crisis at the moment, the subcommittee has recommended that funding for your three-year round trip to Australia be cut to 18 months.

Yours sincerely, NRC.

Follow-up

A letter to Mr Darwin A correspondent draws my attention to another lovely piece from the EMBO Reports Journal )Vol 10, 2009), by Frank Gannon. [Download the pdf.]

Dear Dr Darwin

” .  .  .  .  In a further comment, referee three decries your descriptive approach, which leaves the task of explaining the ‘how’ to others. His/her view is that any publications resulting from your work will inevitably be acceptable only to lowimpact specialist journals; even worse, they might be publishable only as a monograph. As our agency is judged by the quality of the work that we support—measured by the average impact factor of the papers that result from our funding—this is a strongly negative comment”

Rather sadly, this excellent editorial had to accompanied by a pusillanimous disclaimer

This Editorial represents the personal views of Frank Gannon and not those of Science Foundation Ireland or the European Molecular Biology Organization.

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