Kill peer review, save civilisation

End 'disastrous' funding system thwarting science's progress, UCL academic urges. Zoe Corbyn reports

April 17, 2008

The future of our civilisation is under threat from a "disastrous" system of science funding that stifles radical work and makes it "nearly impossible" for leading researchers to make unpredictable discoveries.

This is the view of Don Braben, visiting professor at University College London, in his new book.

Professor Braben has used his new book Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilisation, published in the UK last week, to argue that the great discoveries of the 20th century would never have been funded under the present system - and that science is heading for "stagnation" unless the system is changed.

Professor Braben argues that the introduction in the 1970s of the review of research proposals has led to a dearth of big scientific discoveries. The most radical ideas, he says, are unlikely to get funded because it is difficult to impress peers before they have been proven. "Before about 1970, scientists were relatively free to do as they pleased but new rules have made it nearly impossible for would-be successors (to the great scientists of the 20th century) to make discoveries that will boost economic growth and prosperity in the 21st century," said Professor Braben.

"It works well enough in the mainstream but it is at the margins where major discoveries are made, where people don't believe in the current wisdom and want to head off into dramatically different directions. To submit those ideas to peer review is disastrous," he told Times Higher Education.

Professor Braben, who has served as a scientific adviser to Whitehall, the Bank of England and BP, calls on governments and funding agencies around the world to create a "21st century Planck club", named in honour of physicist Max Planck.

The club, Dr Braben envisages, would use public and private funds to provide "total freedom" to a very few scientists to explore fields of interest, without having to subject proposals to peer review.

"They would be accountable for what they spend but how they spent it would be up to them based on mutual trust," he said. "Max Planck was not motivated by the usual things but by a 'hunger of the soul'. This is who we want to reach: people who are motivated by a hunger of the soul."

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