Research needs more poetry, not more cash

‘Big money’ grants foster ‘bookkeeping’ work at the expense of small-scale but potentially groundbreaking efforts, says Gary Thomas

November 14, 2013

Source: Elly Walton

The view that important science can no longer be done in a shed is contradicted by hugely significant insights resting on little more than string and sealing wax

Dwight D. Eisenhower took up a good proportion of his farewell address to the American nation in 1961 worrying about universities. The departing president said that the university was “historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery”. His big regret, however, was that money, not discovery, had become the principal target for staff at universities. A government contract had become “a substitute for intellectual curiosity”.

In the same year, Alvin Weinberg, who was then director of one of the US national laboratories, concurred. He said in a celebrated paper in Science that “one sees evidence of scientists spending money instead of thought. This is one of the most insidious effects of large-scale support of science.”

But the warnings were not heeded: indeed, the problem they identified is now worse than ever. It has now reached the point where the money on scholars’ CVs is more important than the substance of their work. One hears of early career scholars who, irrespective of the brilliance of their insights, fail to progress because they haven’t “brought in the income”.

The relentless drive for money exists partly, of course, because of the metrics of corporatisation: all universities crave improved bottom lines. But there are two important corollaries of this fact of life. The first is that for ambitious young researchers it’s better for their career – and easier – to chase money than to come up with striking new ideas. The second is that research of a particular kind and quality is endorsed and promoted.

The mantra that “important science can no longer be done in the back shed” keeps being contradicted by enormously significant insights that have rested on little more than the legendary string and sealing wax. The latest refutation comes from the discovery of the single-atom-thick substance graphene using Sellotape and pencil-lead, which won Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

But the confidence in big money persists – and not just in the natural sciences. Social science, with its irrepressible physics-envy, is subject to the same syndrome. Often, in unashamed displays of willy-waving, its funders boast of their “large grants” programmes, obliging proposals that demand the expenditure of seven-figure figures. The Economic and Social Research Council, for example, currently advertises a competition for applications ranging from £2 million to £10 million. The subject seems to be less important than the expenditure of a huge amount of money. Are these worth the money? I personally struggle to think of significant advances to have emerged from such highly funded research in the social sciences.

It would be better to spread the millions spent on these large grant ventures among small, innovative projects. In education, for instance, one big randomised controlled trial could fund a thousand classroom-based research projects. The Department for Education used to fund teachers to research their own practice under its excellent Best Practice Research Scholarships programme, but this competed poorly for media attention with the big, glossy, “what works” stuff and was pulled after just three years.

Allegiance to the idea that big is best arises not just out of corporatisation and empire-building. It stems also from a failure to distinguish between two very different kinds of science, which Nobel prizewinning biologist Sir Peter Medawar described as “poetic” and “bookkeeping”. The poetic work, depending on insight and imagination, is at the heart of scientific advance. But its fluidity simply doesn’t map on to the form of the standard research proposal, let alone the kind that demands the spending of shedloads of money. (What might the proposal for the discovery of graphene have looked like?)

Sir Peter’s bookkeeping science, by contrast, is expensive. It lies in the grinding refinement, clarification and confirmation of findings. Its ability to dish up outcomes and to specify methods lends itself admirably to the machinery of the traditional grant proposal and its assessment, and it ties in perfectly with the government’s impact agenda.

Both kinds of work – poetic and bookkeeping – are essential, of course, but an emphasis on money pushes researchers towards the latter. Nobel prizewinners’ stories are often quite similar, detailing how they have had to be extraordinarily determined and resilient to obtain the necessary time and funding to make their poetic breakthroughs, even requiring them to lie and cheat about the kind of research they were doing.

But the offer of ever-larger grants by funders only encourages universities to put yet more emphasis on – in that awful phrase – income generation. The risk is that before long the Nobel committees will have only bookkeepers to choose from. And we will all be the poorer for that.

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Reader's comments (1)

I absolutely agree that grants for post doc researchers has killed creative research. Research was better when support went to Phd scholarships. Research Students During my time at Birmingham, {1955-1968]. most academic research was done by postgraduate students working for a doctorate that is the PhD degree. Some research was done by students working for a Masters, the MSc. In the Birmingham faculty of Science and Engineering, the student worked on a project suggested by a supervisor who then directed the work and guided the student. Thus in choosing a project the student chose his supervisor. A sensible supervisor was unlikely to take on more than one new PhD student and one MSc student a year, indeed research scholarships were limited and were usually shared between supervisors. There was a certain amount of competition among students to work with a well known supervisor. As my publications became well known I attracted many of the best students of the year. These postgraduate students were supported by research scholarships, available to those who had attained a First or Upper Second class degree. This imposed time limits on the research, three years for a PhD and two years for an MSc until we invented a one year MSc by an examination and a small research project of about six months. The most important requirement for a successful PhD was that the results of the work be suitable for publication in a refereed journal. The requirement for the smaller MSc by examination projects was less demanding. The candidate had simply to satisfy an external examiner that he was professionally competent. This system encouraged creative and original research. Creative Research Most academics prefer to stick to old questions on fashionable problems, those on which there is an extensive literature. This is less risky but usually results in publications which are relatively insignificant and soon forgotten. Eventually I found that the art of high impact creative research lies in the choice of a new question, a significant question, but one which may be answered by using established techniques, mathematical or experimental whichever is appropriate. This is not easy; sometimes several slightly different questions have to be reviewed before settling on one which matches both the requirements above. I nearly always devised new experiments or new theory to answer these new questions. I found that the mix of MSc and PhD students provided a good way doing this sort of work. I could set an MSc student the task of getting enough results for me to evaluate a new idea. If it failed not much harm was done, but if it looked promising, the idea could form the basis for PhD work and a paper in a reputable [refereed] journal. It is perhaps worth noting that working with research students in this way permits and encourages creative and original research more than the recent methods of working with post doctoral fellows which started when the Government decided that research at university departments must be evaluated. The non creative majority of academics decided to evaluate departments not by outcomes such as citations but by research income. The race was on to obtain large research grants by employing expensive post docs. This requires the research topics to be more or less defined before starting the work. A paper on the results of PhD research would often be offered for publication during the last year of a PhD and take a year to get through the refereeing and rest of the publication process. This meant that the paper would appear some four years after I had had the original idea. Thus my first publications were based only on my own work but as time went on these were supplemented by the results obtained by students on projects set up by me or once on a project devised by colleagues who had sought my involvement in his work. I published on average three a year, one paper in 1960, three in 1961 and eight in 1968,. By then IM had published 28 papers and that was when I left Birmingham for Manchester.

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