No creative spark in big bang funding

October 6, 2011

I doubt that I am the only reader who noted a particularly cruel juxtaposition in the 29 September issue of Times Higher Education. On the one hand was John Martin's well-argued critique of the lack of creativity and connectivity in the UK medical research base ("Healthy, wealthy and wise"). On the other hand was the letter from Declan Mulkeen, director of research programmes at the Medical Research Council, defending the smaller number of grants awarded through the MRC this year.

Mulkeen triumphantly announced that those few grants that had been awarded had risen in value by an average of 23 per cent compared with the previous year. Apparently, this many-eggs-in-few-baskets approach produces "world-class science in a more efficient way" through "healthy competition", which nonetheless favours "well-established investigators and programmes".

In my experience, this Big Science mindset results in few papers with many authors (reflecting a mutual back-scratching survival strategy), published in high-impact journals that permit only highly abbreviated texts. To my mind, confining sponsorship to projects that routinely produce predictable science at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds of funding per printed page is hardly "efficient".

When publish-or-perish has been superseded by pounds-or-perish, it is time that the research councils took a more thoughtful and less prescriptive approach to funding, spreading the money more thinly. Researchers who are less experienced and/or more adventurous could then survive in their profession long enough to express their much-needed creativity for the benefit of us all.

Richard Bateman, Kew

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