The great researchers of the past would not get funding today

Donald Braben looks at the implications of Sir Paul Nurse’s review of research councils

December 10, 2015
Science research
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Last month Sir Paul Nurse, the outgoing president of the Royal Society and a Nobel laureate, published his review of the UK’s research councils.

The report, Ensuring a Successful Research Endeavour, summarises the research councils’ methods for research assessment, recommends that their integrity be preserved, and suggests a new body, Research UK, to improve decision-making in research.  

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Today, ensuring the future health of academic research is crucial. The UK’s university system has been expanded by roughly a factor of three in the past decades and governments have driven the expansion with little regard to the wider consequences for the research councils. Funding success rates are now typically at about 25 per cent, which creates serious problems even for established scientists and may drive talented youngsters from research. With 75 per cent of applicants failing to win funding, the result is a colossal waste of time and energy. These problems dominate academic research.

Nurse’s report traces the history of funding decisions in the sector, starting with Lord Haldane’s report of 1918. A year later, his report led to the creation of the University Grants Committee as a mechanism for funding universities. The UGC rigorously protected universities’ freedom and autonomy. Its membership included the most senior academic scientists, but importantly, until 1963, it was funded by the Treasury.

Thus, provided this powerful government department was satisfied, the UGC could resist attempts by politicians and officials to interfere in academic affairs or to impose such strictures as “earmarked grants”. Funding was through rolling five-year grants – the quinquennium – and universities were more or less free to spend their allocations “according to their lights”. 

In 1963, the UGC was transferred to the Department of Education and Science, which was also responsible for the research councils. This shift brought the dual-support system immediately under threat, as it is hardly worthy of the name when the same department controls both systems. The number of universities was also considerably expanded following Lord Robbins’ influential 1963 report. The UGC was wound up in 1989 to make way for the funding councils, which are now very instruments of government.

However, as Nurse points out, personal freedom in research is not optional if the aim is a stable and prosperous society. Governments should have protected academic freedom from the beginning so that intellectually challenging environments could be nurtured. In the 1970s the quinquennium ended, and university planning was limited to a single year. In 1992, government abolished the so-called binary divide, which further increased the number of universities, and a year later there were substantial changes to the Royal Charters of research councils that made them, for the first time, partly responsible for the UK’s economic competitiveness.

During most of the 20th century, global academic freedom produced spectacular harvests. The 500 or so Nobel prizewinners in science were overwhelmingly drawn from the ranks of academics, and a disproportionate number were from the UK. No one predicted their discoveries. No amount of “horizon scanning” would have helped. They were not seeking to contribute solutions to social problems. Few wrote proposals and many were under 40 when they did their first work. Yet their discoveries inspired others to develop the technologies that radically changed the world. This is the freedom that needs protection.

These scientists would probably not be funded today.

Their premises would be that current knowledge is seriously incomplete, which creates problems with proving the “excellence” of proposed work as judged by mainly anonymous peer reviews, which procedures the report passionately defends. How can scientists whose vision necessarily might take them beyond the mainstream convince their peers when they cannot be certain themselves? Instead of protecting individual freedom, the report points out that university managements have a duty to ensure that the research councils are not overloaded.

With such low success rates, scientists will obviously limit risks and concentrate on the mainstream. Rather than focus “too much on grant submissions or grants won”, as the report puts it, managements should have more regard to the research outputs of their faculty. But faculty played no part in the discoveries of the “500”.

The Nurse report would be sensible if universities’ purpose were to make the UK more competitive. Mainstream science is global and in these circumstances progress depends on the absolute levels of funding nations can bring to bear. The UK is relatively small and also invests less in research as a proportion of national wealth than others, which puts the country at a serious disadvantage.

Universities can find an edge by going beyond the mainstream. Scientific beauty is difficult to find in today’s increasingly materialistic world, but those searching for it must be protected.  

Donald Braben is an honorary professor in the department of earth sciences and in the Office of the Vice-Provost for Research, University College London. His latest book is Promoting the Planck Club: How defiant youth, irreverent researchers and liberated universities can foster prosperity indefinitely.

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