Nobel laureates condemn ‘unimaginative’ research funding models

Peer review process punishes academics who ‘challenge the dogma’ of their field, scientists claim

April 20, 2017
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Short odds only: risk-averse funders spurn potentially groundbreaking research

Research funding bodies do not like researchers who “challenge the dogma” of their field, and hence give the impression that “innovation is not valued”, a Nobel laureate has warned.

Sir Richard Roberts, joint winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, claimed that policymakers prefer to assign money to research that they know will get results because they are “mainly interested in getting re-elected” as opposed to funding what’s “good for the country”.

He spoke out in support of an opinion piece, published in Times Higher Education, which condemns funding agencies for stymieing “exciting, imaginative, unpredictable” projects.

The article, authored by Donald Braben, honorary professor in the department of Earth sciences at University College London, claims that funding bodies have neutered “total freedom of thought” by relying on peer review processes that emphasise value for money and direct application to contemporary socio-economic challenges.

Professor Braben’s piece is endorsed by 36 eminent scholars, including Sir Richard and his fellow Nobel laureate Dudley Herschbach.

Sir Richard, chief scientific officer of Massachusetts-based bioscience supplier New England Biolabs, told Times Higher Education that funding agencies “do not encourage people to be imaginative and innovative” and don’t like researchers who “challenge the dogma” in their field.

“It tends to put you off, especially young people. [You] basically tell them innovation is not valued…and not something the government or any other funding agency wants to support,” Sir Richard said.

“Policymakers are mainly interested in [themselves]. So they are dying to do or say anything that will get them re-elected. If they were to go to the voters and say: ‘We’re going to try and piss away a lot of money on basic ideas that never lead to anything’, that’s going to get them into trouble.”

In today’s climate, the research that led to Sir Richard’s Nobel prizewinning discovery would probably not get funded, he said. These comments are echoed by Professor Herschbach, joint winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, who said his groundbreaking research had been described as being at the “lunatic fringe” of chemistry, and it “could not have been started if I had to get funding via peer review”.

Professor Herschbach, Baird professor of science at Harvard University, said continuing to fund research in this manner would “inhibit development of young scientists” because they won’t “have the freedom to follow where their research project leads”.

Consequently, Sir Richard said, there is a “good chance” that innovation will dry up, or that leading research nations such as the US and the UK will slip behind emerging nations such as China.

David Colquhoun, emeritus professor of pharmacology at University College London and another supporter of Professor Braben’s piece, called the “actively corrupting” impact agenda a “dreadful load of bollocks…responsible for a daily parade of diet nonsense and dodgy psychology on the Today programme”.

john.elmes@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: In praise of dogma-challengers: Nobel laureates condemn ‘unimaginative’ research funding models

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