Creativity crushed by a super-fuelled juggernaut

February 11, 2005

The focus on directed 'big science' is leading to a loss of ingenuity and objectivity, says Richard Bateman

Over the past two decades, the scientific community has come to grudgingly accept a raft of constraints imposed on it by the corporate ethos inherent in directed "big science". It has adjusted its modus operandi to conform to the demands of the well-funded, focused, hierarchical and often multi-institutional research project. But I believe the community has not given sufficient thought to the loss of the long-standing "privileges" it ceded to the ascendant bureaucratic elite with remarkably little resistance.

Big science was originally restricted to projects nucleated around exceptionally expensive pieces of experimental equipment. It has now been expanded into every realm of research. This shift of emphasis reflects a conscious decision on the part of politicians, enacted primarily through funding bodies, to develop a more directed mode of science.

Taken at face value, the big science approach brings several advantages.

Prioritised topics can be addressed in their entirety rather than being fragmented among small research groups, while policymakers can guide the research base towards responding rapidly to the perceived requirements of society. If additional activities are required of the scientists, such as the public understanding of science, submitting data to open-access databases or establishing institutional intellectual-property rights, these can be made conditions of the mega project's mega funding. Much project administration may be devolved. Large network grants also eliminate redundancy of effort by encouraging closer links between laboratories that possess complementary skills and technologies.

But far more attention should be paid to the downside of directed science, as we have effectively been made laboratory rats in a worldwide experiment in academic social engineering. I fear its most likely victims are creativity and objectivity.

Big science increases the polarisation of the strained relationship between the haves and have-nots, at every level of competition from institutions to individuals. A failed grant proposal can now mean a failed career. By simultaneously raising the stakes and reducing the probability of successful funding, the pressures to collaborate and to compete are intensified. And beyond a certain size of project, both competition and collaboration are undermined as the number of well-qualified research groups dwindles. As a result, finding non-aligned reviewers, for example, is becoming problematic in some specialised fields.

To gain funding, mega-science proposals must be perceived as flawless, so any hint of risk - of delivering less than the total promised package - is fatal. Yet creative science projects inevitably incur risk. Objectivity suffers at every level. Reviewers fear tit-for-tat reprisals. Experiments that yield negative results pass unreported, as do those that generate unexpected results unwelcome to special-interest funders. Projects encountering difficulties raise the temptation to cut corners, for example, by recycling existing data as a substitute for novel data.

Publishing cartels facilitate the high-impact integrated papers beloved of the research assessment exercise, but also generate extended lists of coauthors who individually find it difficult to defend the papers' overall contents. And reduction of overlap between projects may conform to an administrator's definition of efficiency but it also undermines Karl Popper's keystone principle of science - falsification via repetitive experimentation.

Big science is by necessity responsive to the prevailing political climate.

Controversial issues such as foot-and-mouth disease, combination vaccinations and especially genetic modification are said to demonstrate that conflicting opinions - and even uncertainty - confuse the public.

Ergo, responsible scientists are expected henceforth to sing from the same hymn sheet.

Homogeneous positivism has become a prerequisite for maintaining funding streams, driving scientific concerns underground and encouraging received wisdom to supplant genuine intellectual debate. The result of the "new realism" is an increasingly monotonous science base that is being shorn of its charismatic mavericks and its conceptual confrontations. Scientific questions that are in theory profound and exciting, in practice become atomised into heavily constrained, more mundane tasks.

Small wonder that prospective science students are voting with their feet, rather than philanthropists with their chequebooks. By treating scientific truths as relative rather than absolute, and funding as a goal in itself, our political masters have lost the plot.

Richard Bateman is a senior scientist at a leading London institution.

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