Leader: 'Great-man' research theory put to the test

April 20, 2001

After the capital spending drought of recent years, the Joint Infrastructure Fund and its successor, the Science Research Investment Fund, are welcome. Many millions of pounds have been provided to equip research groups to do better science rather than to expand the amount of research carried out.

Both schemes are designed to be distinct from research council funding. Instead of paying for specific pieces of research, Jif and Srif provide equipment for use in a single institution or for national facilities.

But the case of Ernest Laue, whose application won Birmingham University a £6 million Jif grant for a spectrometer for cancer research reveals muddled thinking as to whether money should go to people or places. Professor Laue works for Cambridge and plans to go on doing so, having changed his mind about the attractions of moving to Birmingham.

The cash has been awarded to Birmingham and will probably stay there, although the Jif management regarded Professor Laue as the project's key ingredient. Birmingham has committed itself to a building and other expenditure to support the machine and must now look for a scientist to run it.

Research funding often goes with team leaders, despite the growing size of the teams and budgets involved and the growing emphasis on teamwork that has swept through much of the public and private sectors. In time, the science produced from the Birmingham spectrometer will show whether the "great-man" model of research still holds.

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