Research councils take note: there is no innovation without scientific research

Research of lasting value needs an open environment without an application or customer in mind, says Donald Braben

November 21, 2017
Research. papers, peer review, physics
Source: iStock

Philip Nelson, the chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, recently announced a call for outline proposals for Research and Innovation’s "Innovation Fellowships".

Worth some £34 million, and expected to fund some 65 to 85 proposals over three years, he was asking for the communities’ help in providing timely and robust assessments. A panel will sift outline proposals, then reviewers will assess full proposals from selected applicants who will face an interview panel. Those successful will start work in June 2018. 

The bureaucratic might of EPSRC is revealed only when the 26-page guidance is consulted, which applicants are required to read, and it is not all science and technology. The first hurdle is social. Unless an outline proposal includes a letter from the "Host Organisation" describing the process by which proposers were identified and how “this process works with current equality, diversity and inclusion policy”, which in the UK is now enshrined in law, the proposal “will be office rejected”.

This is an important issue, but surely has no more place in Research Council’s criteria than, say, concerns on potential criminal activities. It is followed by news that applicants’ proposals must be in areas included in the government’s Industrial Strategy. EPSRC anticipates the number of proposals each university might submit, an “indicative quota”, which host universities are expected to prioritise. 

Fellowships, which are aimed at young and innovative scientists from either universities or industry, will focus on “creative and challenging research whilst developing relationships within and outside of the research base by engaging with industry” and will be subjected to EPSRC’s usual range of rigorous evaluation, including peer review and assessments of impact. Since some 200 to 300 proposals are expected for these Fellowships and only some 65 to 85 will be approved, most applicants will be disappointed.

Applicants are warned that submitting full proposals will count towards the EPSRC’s “Repeatedly Unsuccessful Applicants Policy”. The Council restricts those with a poor long-term record to submitting one application in the following 12 months, so presumably most applicants will qualify under this policy. 

The Fellowships seek innovation. But there is no innovation without scientific research, which of course is wholly unpredictable. However, the call offers little room for manoeuvre in the face of the inevitable unexpected. Almost all research of any lasting value depends for success on an open environment without an application or customer in mind if the full benefits of unfettered imagination and creativity are to be had.

Political expediency may dictate this particular approach but decades of successful experience should not be ignored if taxpayers' EPSRC investment is not to be wasted. 

Charles Townes, a young American working at Columbia University, was trying in the 1950s to produce photon avalanches. His experience may be relevant. After some two years of unsuccessful attempts, Isidor Rabi and Polykarp Kusch, the former and current chairman of the department, both Nobel laureates, visited him in his office. As their research depended on support from the same source as Townes’ they told him to stop.

Townes had recently been given tenure at Columbia, so he knew he could not be fired for incompetence or ordered around. Showing extraordinary courage, Townes was able to stand his ground and respectfully told his exalted colleagues that he would continue. Two months later his experiment worked, and the maser was born, which went on to transform the lives of virtually everyone on earth.

Townes was supported by the US Navy who year after year provided him with the modest funds he needed. How will Townes’ modern successors survive university prioritisation and trials by EPSRC’s peer review and impact assessments? 

Donald Braben is an honorary professor in the Earth Science’s department and in the office of the vice-provost (research), UCL, and writes in a personal capacity. His latest book is Promoting the Planck Club: How defiant youth, irreverent researchers and liberated universities can foster prosperity indefinitely. 


This article is endorsed by the following, who also act in a personal capacity 

John Allen, University College London, UK
Hagan Bayley, FRS, University of Oxford, UK
John Dainton, FRS, University of Liverpool, UK
Steve Davies, University of Oxford, UK
Rod Dowler, Chair, Industry Forum, London, UK
Irene Engle, US Naval Academy, Annapolis, USA
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, University of Notre Dame, USA
Desmond Fitzgerald, Materia Medica, Knutsford, UK
Dudley Herschbach, US National Academy of Sciences, Nobel Laureate, Harvard University, USA
Pat Heslop-Harrison, University of Leicester, UK
Sui Huang, Institute for Systems Biology, Seattle, USA
Herbert Huppert FRS, University of Cambridge, UK
James Ladyman, University of Bristol, UK
Peter Lawrence FRS, University of Cambridge, UK
Mark Leake, University of York, UK
Chris Leaver, CBE, FRS, University of Oxford, UK
Angus Macintyre, FRS, Queen Mary, University of London, UK
J S. Moore, US National Academy of Engineering, University of Texas at Austin, USA
Beatrice Pelloni, Heriot Watt University, UK
Gerald Pollack, University of Washington, USA
Douglas Randall, former US National Science Board member, University of Missouri, USA
Sir Richard J. Roberts FRS, Nobel Laureate, New England Biolabs, USA
Helmut Schwarz, Fellow European Academy of Sciences, Technische Universität Berlin, Germany
Ken Seddon, OBE, Queen’s University of Belfast, UK
Colin Self, University of Newcastle, UK
Gene Stanley, US National Academy of Sciences, University of Boston, USA
Sir John Meurig Thomas, FRS, Hon FREng, University of Cambridge, UK
William Troy, University of Pittsburgh, USA
Robin Tucker, University of Lancaster. UK
Krist Vaesen, Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands
Claudio Vita Finzi, Natural History Museum, UK.

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