An unbound global pursuit

November 24, 2011

Relevance is a tricky concept. Research that will probably prove useful is easy to identify - it fits neatly into a priority area and researchers have done similar work before. However, research is, or at least should be, essentially unpredictable. Even Werner von Braun, who once worked for the Nazis and subsequently inspired the creation of the space industry, famously said, "Research is what I do when I don't know what I'm doing."

One would hope that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council understands this. Apparently not, it would seem. The EPSRC recently published "Changes to peer review" as part of its delivery plan. It states: "Applicants will need to clearly identify the national importance of their proposed research project, over a 10-50 year time-frame."

Surely it can't be serious? For research worthy of the name, a scientist's vision is obscured by a fog of uncertainty that cuts visibility to a few weeks at best. How would Dorothy Hodgkin, Brian Josephson, Peter Mitchell, Geoffrey Wilkinson and many others fare if they were starting out today? These UK scientists won Nobel prizes and made important national contributions that no one could possibly have predicted.

Science is global, and there are no prizes for second place; thus, the criterion of "national importance" has little relevance. UK governments invest a smaller proportion of national income in research and development than others. US support for research at Harvard University alone in 2010 was more than $600 million (£379.5 million), or about 80 per cent of the value of EPSRC-approved proposals in that year. If we force scientists to compete in important fields, they will usually be financially disadvantaged.

Of course, many on shoestring budgets have succeeded in the past, but that was because they did not follow the madding crowds.

One of the UK's greatest strengths was the freedom it gave scientists to develop ideas without having to justify themselves to committees locked into assumptions about promising areas. Leaders of research and funding councils once implacably defended that system, and it paid off handsomely. Nowadays, academics are worn down by a never-ending need to demonstrate relevance and efficiency, and to comply with external impositions. They have little time to think or plan. Consequently, the university as an independent institution is under grave threat. Our leaders are apparently acquiescent. If I were in their place, I would be considering my position.

Donald W. Braben, Honorary professor, Department of earth sciences, University College London

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