Innovation must not be sacrificed

February 20, 1998

Patrick Coldstream sums up The THES's recent peer review debate with an outsider's call for more openness, daring and iconoclasm

WHEN bright young sparks from science and engineering laboratories complain that in dishing out research money their elders are nepotistic, greedy, prejudiced and secretive, the friendly industrialist may smile understandingly: "It was ever so; the young aspirants are shrill, eager, disappointed and they exaggerate."

But what shall he say when a professor, and from University College, no less, which scores top marks for most research, says she is impelled to endorse such criticism of the way research is chosen for finance and people chosen for promotion? And when she goes on: "We are admonished to go for peak-quality performance, yet power and judgement really seem to reside in a charmed circle of uneven expertise and prejudice whose members understandably are not minded to consider radical changes to procedures that are serving them well"?

"Does it really matter?" the friendly onlooker (I imagine him a thoughtful senior industrialist) asks himself. The professor offers the answer: the charmed circle is especially resistant, she says, "when it comes to innovation, originality or unfashionable research. Much potentially important progress can thus be lost and promising newcomers discouraged."

That really does matter. When a new research policy emerged five years ago out of William Waldegrave's good white paper, Realising Our Potential, the Council for Industry and Higher Education noted how twin objectives for university research investment had to be carefully kept in tension. "Funding should both follow established track records and give properly funded chances to promising newcomers. It follows that bread-and-butter work must expect to attract less public funding in the future."

Now, we are being told, the speculative and original may be sacrificed to the safety of yesterday's track record. It is the lazy policy to which busy people are, of course, easily tempted.

Countervailing measures need determination. Richard Brook's innovations at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council deserve strong support. Investment decisions with scarce public funds are the issue. They need to be supported with good reasons and guided by published criteria. There will be awkwardnesses with openness, but they must be got over. And though much of the required comment may be highly expert, the research community will benefit if the broad lines of argument can be made intelligible beyond the discipline in question. Evidence of decisions wisely and carefully made is essential for those lobbying for a bigger research budget. Without it they deserve to fail.

The time and intellectual energy spent on reasoned comment can do more than set the research agenda. They should help to broaden the horizons of the project proposers themselves, whether their applications succeed or fail. Deciding where to go next is a critical judgement for researchers and their judgement can be deepened and sharpened by comments on their proposals, above all if they can be given the chance to debate them. How better to learn where their own ideas fit into, or challenge, the bigger picture? How quicker to learn what modifications will give their ideas a better prospect of support in future?

Peer review can become "a dialogue between applicants and funding agencies", says David Grant of the Leukaemia Research Fund. EPSRC applicants, as an experiment, are being offered the chance themselves to comment on the opinions of their referees. Their own comments form part of the discussion by which the project is finally ranked. Such dialogue, which will often be clumsy to begin with, is exactly how the intellectual community will breed confidence in its own processes.

Research insights and imaginative agenda-setting are not the monopoly of older, more established, even the more prominent or eminent researchers. (Far from it. I believe there is plenty of evidence that most scientists do their best work in their thirties.) There is everything to be said for widening the groups from which reviewers are chosen. This is what EPSRC is trying to do.

Industry scientists can form part of the pool and may have a bigger part to play. Having no academic position to defend, they are less tempted to deference. "No track record of distinguished work justifies funding for an indefinite future," the CIHE has said. "Major projects need to be generously supported but given a strictly limited life. The courage to back new work needs to be matched by a degree of ruthlessness in stopping what is no longer innovative. Privileged reputations and funding must be subject to scrutiny. Pecking orders are most efficient where there is plenty of scope for changing places."

The country, and especially industry, relies on the universities to supply its two most valued resources: well-educated, innovative, adaptable people and new ideas. Inevitably, as experts are needed to judge experts, academics ("peers") must play a leading role in ranking the "best" people and the best ideas. But the rest of us need reassurance that promising young researchers are not discouraged by being shut out of discussion they vitally need to be part of. We want to know that academic freedom is encouraging innovation and not made an excuse for hole-and-corner conservatism.

Sir Ron Dearing's committee obviously shared some of these anxieties. They commended the research councils' efforts to save money on administration but thought that they had led to the introduction of some procedures that did not carry the full confidence of the academic community. They proposed a new independent body to take an "objective overview" of the arrangements for allocating research funding. Certainly the task to be done - though it may not need a permanent body - includes the job of ensuring that there are checks and balances working as a brake on the inherent conservatism of "peer review".

It is not just the academic community whose confidence must be bolstered; taxpayers and research users have to be persuaded that research money really is creating the future rather than celebrating the past.

Such a committee, thought the Dearing group, could report more frankly if it worked in private. The correspondence in The THES, however, suggests the balance of advantage would be in making public as much of its evidence and debate as possible. Another secret conclave seems unlikely to reassure those who are anxious about the weaknesses of conclusions "frankly" reached by a secret conclave.

The report of such a task group could set the tone for a wider debate on how the academic community may best widen the range of opinion on which it is able to draw for its own decisions.

When the Higher Education Funding Council for England had the job of assessing the quality of university teaching, it set up a process of "peer review" for the purpose. The outcome was just as might have been expected: reports on hundreds of university departments were diligent, thoughtful and sensible but - in university terms - entirely conventional in their judgements and - to the eyes of the outside world - deeply conservative. The new quality assurance agency will need to look for methods less bland; in teaching just as in research there need to be prizes for daring, iconoclasm and innovation.

And who knows? If university teachers and researchers gain the confidence to explore more freely, perhaps vice-chancellors would find their hands strengthened to make courageous decisions about promotions. There are now examples of academics gaining advancement from imaginative and diligent teaching but certainly nowhere near enough of them. Here, one is told, the opinions of the established research barons carry a heavy and traditional weight.

Patrick Coldstream is visiting professor at London University's Institute of Education and was director of the Council for Industry and Higher Education until 1996.

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