A letter to the Guardian

Don Braben is one of my heroes. He has a clear-headed but deeply-held belief, with which I agree, that the bureaucracy of modern science gets in the way of getting good science done, at a time when the world needs good clear science more than ever. He was a leader in the (mostly unsuccessful) campaign against “Impact” in the REF.

So I am very happy to be a signatory of a letter published in yesterday’s Guardian on this subject. Here is the text of the letter:

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts,” said Richard Feynman in the 1960s. But times change. Before about 1970, academics had access to modest funding they could use freely. Industry was similarly enlightened. Their results included the transistor, the maser-laser, the electronics and telecommunications revolutions, nuclear power, biotechnology and medical diagnostics galore that enriched the lives of virtually everyone; they also boosted 20th-century economic growth.

After 1970, politicians substantially expanded academic sectors. Peer review’s uses allowed the rise of priorities, impact etc, and is now virtually unavoidable. Applicants’ proposals must convince their peers that they serve national policies and are the best possible uses of resources. Success rates are about 25%, and strict rules govern resubmissions. Rejected proposals are usually lost. Industry too has lost its taste for the unpredictable. The 500 major discoveries, almost all initiated before about 1970, challenged mainstream science and would probably be vetoed today. Nowadays, fields where understanding is poor are usually neglected because researchers must convince experts that working in them will be beneficial.

However, small changes would keep science healthy. Some are outlined in Donald Braben’s book, Promoting the Planck Club: How Defiant Youth, Irreverent Researchers and Liberated Universities Can Foster Prosperity Indefinitely. But policies are deeply ingrained. Agencies claiming to support blue-skies research use peer review, of course, discouraging open-ended inquiries and serious challenges to prevailing orthodoxies. Mavericks once played an essential role in research. Indeed, their work defined the 20th century. We must relearn how to support them, and provide new options for an unforeseeable future, both social and economic. We need influential allies. Perhaps Guardian readers could help?

The signatories are: Donald W Braben, University College London; John F Allen, Queen Mary, University of London; William Amos, University of Cambridge; Richard Ball, University of Edinburgh; Tim Birkhead FRS, University of Sheffield; Peter Cameron, Queen Mary, University of London; Richard Cogdell FRS, University of Glasgow; David Colquhoun FRS, University College London; Rod Dowler, Industry Forum, London; Irene Engle, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis; Felipe Fernández-Armesto, University of Notre Dame; Desmond Fitzgerald, Materia Medica; Pat Heslop-Harrison, University of Leicester; Dudley Herschbach, Harvard University, Nobel Laureate; H Jeff Kimble, Caltech, US National Academy of Sciences; Sir Harry Kroto FRS, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Nobel Laureate; James Ladyman, University of Bristol; Nick Lane, University College London; Peter Lawrence FRS, University of Cambridge; Angus MacIntyre FRS, Queen Mary, University of London; John Mattick, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney; Beatrice Pelloni, University of Reading; Martyn Poliakoff FRS, University of Nottingham; Douglas Randall, University of Missouri; David Ray, Bio Astral Limited; Sir Richard J Roberts FRS, New England Biolabs, Nobel Laureate; Ken Seddon, Queen’s University of Belfast; Colin Self, University of Newcastle; Harry Swinney, University of Texas, US National Academy of Sciences; Claudio Vita-Finzi FBA Natural History Museum.

Please put your suggestions, stories, and ideas about how such people can be supported outside the funding mainstream here; I will make sure they get heard.


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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One Response to A letter to the Guardian

  1. Mathematics, of all scientific disciplines, should be the best place to look, since we are so much less dependent on research funding. Here are three names for starters:Paul Erdős, Alexandre Grothendieck, Grigori Perelman.

    Erdős was the only one of these three I met. He was a political maverick, tolerated by the authorities (for the most part), and so was able to play an enormously valuable role in communicating mathematics betwee, East and West, to say nothing of his own contributions. The other two are more recent, and more anti-establishment. But I would appreciate a few words from anyone who knows their stories better than I do.

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