Research quangos lead to mediocrity is the headline title of a letter to The Times appeared on 6 December 2010. It is reproduced below for those who can’t (or won’t) pay Rupert Murdoch to see it.
The letter is about the current buzzword, "research impact", a term that trips off the lips of every administrator and politician daily. Since much research is funded by the taxpayer, it seems reasonable to ask if it gives value for money. The best answer can be found in St Paul’s cathedral.
The plaque for Christopher Wren bears the epitaph
LECTOR, SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS, CIRCUMSPICE.
Reader, if you seek his memorial – look around you.
Much the same could be said for the impact of any science. Look at your refrigerator, your mobile phone, your computer, your central heating boiler, your house. Look at the X-ray machine and MRI machines in your hospital. Look at the aircraft that takes you on holiday. Look at your DVD player and laser surgery. Look, even, at the way you can turn a switch and light your room. Look at almost anything that you take for granted in your everyday life, They are all products of science; products, eventually, of the enlightenment.
BUT remember also that these wonderful products did not appear overnight. They evolved slowly over many decades or even centuries, and they evolved from work that, at the time, appeared to be mere idle curiosity. Electricity lies at the heart of everyday life. It took almost 200 years to get from Michael Faraday’s coils to your mobile phone. At the time, Faraday’s work seemed to politicians to be useless. Michael Faraday was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1824.
. . . after Faraday was made a fellow of the Royal Society[,] the prime minister of the day asked what good this invention could be, and Faraday answered: “Why, Prime Minister, someday you can tax it.”
Whether this was really said is doubtful, but that hardly matters. It is the sort of remark made by politicians every day.
In May 2008, I read a review of ”The myths of Innovation” by Scott Berkun. The review seems to have vanished from the web, but I noted it in diary. These words should be framed on the wall of every politician and administrator. Here are some quotations.
“One myth that will disappoint most businesses is the idea that innovation can be managed. Actually, Berkun calls this one ‘Your boss knows more about innovation than you’. After all, he says, many people get their best ideas while they’re wandering in their bathrobes, filled coffee mug in hand, from the kitchen to their home PC on a day off rather than sitting in a cubicle in a suit during working hours. But professional managers can’t help it: their job is to control every variable as much as possible, and that includes innovation.”
“Creation is sloppy; discovery is messy; exploration is dangerous. What’s a manager to do?
The answer in general is to encourage curiosity and accept failure. Lots of failure.”
I commented at the time "What a pity that university managers are so far behind those of modern businesses. They seem to be totally incapable of understanding these simple truths. That is what happens when power is removed from people who know about research and put into the hands of lawyers, HR people, MBAs and failed researchers."
That is even more true two years later. The people who actually do research have been progressively disempowered. We are run by men in dark suits who mistake meetings for work. You have only to look at history to see that great discoveries arise from the curiosity of creative people, and that,. rarely, these ideas turn out to be of huge economic importance, many decades later.
The research impact plan, has been now renamed "Pathways to Impact". It means that scientists are being asked to explain the economic impact of their research before they have even got any results.
All that shows is how science is being run by dimwits who simply don’t understand how science works. This amounts to nothing less than being compelled to lie if you want any research funding. And, worse stiil, the pressure to lie comes not primarily from government, but from that curious breed of ex-scientists, failed scientists and non-scientists who control the Research Councils.
How much did RCUK pay for the silly logo?
We are being run by people who would have told Michael Faraday to stop messing about with wires and coils and to do something really useful, like inventing better leather washers for steam pumps.
Welcome to the third division. Brought to you be Research Counclls and politicians.
Here is the letter in The Times. It is worded slightly more diplomatically than my commentary. but will, no doubt, have just as little effect. What would the signatories know about science? Several off them don’t even wear black suits.
The governance of UK academic research today is delegated to a quangocracy comprising 11 funding and research councils, and to an additional body – Research Councils UK. Ill considered changes over the past few decades have transformed what was arguably the world’s most creative academic sector into one often described nowadays as merely competitive.
In their latest change, research councils introduce a new criterion for judging proposals – “Pathways to Impact” – against which individual researchers applying for funds must identify who might benefit from their proposed research and how they might benefit. Furthermore, the funding councils are planning to begin judging researchers’ departments in 2014 on the actual benefits achieved and to adjust their funding accordingly, thereby increasing pressure on researchers to deliver short-term benefits. However, we cannot understand why the quangocracy has ignored abundant evidence showing that the outcomes of high-quality research are impossible to predict.
We are mindful of the need to justify investment in academic research, but “Pathways to Impact” focuses on the predictable, leads to mediocrity, and reduces returns to the taxpayer. In our opinion as experienced researchers, few if any of the 20th century’s great discoveries and their huge economic stimuli could have happened if a policy of focussing on attractive short-term benefits had applied because great discoveries are always unpredicted. We therefore have an acutely serious problem.
Abolishing “Pathways to Impact” would not only save the expense of its burgeoning bureaucracy; it would also be a step towards liberating creativity and indicate that policy-makers have at last regained their capacity for world-class thinking.
Donald W Braben
John F Allen, Queen Mary, University of London;
Adam Curtis, Glasgow University;
Peter Lawrence FRS, University of Cambridge;
David Ray, BioAstral Limited;
Lewis Wolpert FRS, University College London;
Now cheer yourself up by reading Captain Cook’s Grant Application.
Scientists should sign the petition to help humanities too. See the Humanities and Social Sciences Matter web site.
Nobel view. 1. Andre Geim’s speech at Nobel banquet, 2010
"Human progress has always been driven by a sense of adventure and unconventional thinking. But amidst calls for “bread and circuses”, these virtues are often forgotten for the sake of cautiousness and political correctness that now rule the world. And we sink deeper and deeper from democracy into a state of mediocrity and even idiocracy. If you need an example, look no further than at research funding by the European Commission."
Nobel view. 2. Ahmed Zewail won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He serves on Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He wrote in Nature
“Beware the urge to direct research too closely, says Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail. History teaches us the value of free scientific inquisitiveness.”
“I have emphasized that without solid investment in science education and a fundamental science base, nations will not acquire the ground-breaking knowledge required to make discoveries and innovations that will shape their future.”
“Preserving knowledge is easy. Transferring knowledge is also easy. But making new knowledge is neither easy nor profitable in the short term. Fundamental research proves profitable in the long run, and, as importantly, it is a force that enriches the culture of any society with reason and basic truth.”
How many more people have to say this before the Research Councils take some notice?