Peer review: democracy, sausages and lotteries

February 6, 1998


'Throw out the panels, throw out the referees and have a lottery for all the funds'

My experience with the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council suggests that the concerns about the fairness of peer review are well founded.

In a letter to The Times about 20 years ago Rudolph Peierls wrote that it was impossible to know what research would, in the end, turn out to be important. The only way to find a winner was to back as many horses in the race as possible. That is not the spirit of peer review in the research councils.

It may well be that EPSRC (and its predecessor organisations) has been brilliant at responding to government edicts. The emphasis over the years has changed; the favoured research has sometimes been pure, sometimes technological, sometimes directed to wealth creation. But I have found that, for me, EPSRC has not been brilliant at all. Indeed, it has been a disaster.

For 25 years I was a university academic. I published papers on the Lamb theory of the laser in the 1960s and co-authored the first book to include the theory. I worked on amplified spontaneous emission and the difference between it and superradiance; and I worked on coherent interactions between atoms and fields and on multiphoton processes. Virtually no one in the UK was working on any of these topics at the time. I applied for many research council awards.

In 1969 an application on "Superradiance and superradiant effects in self-induced transparency and pulse amplification" was turned down because it was not thought to be "of sufficient timeliness and promise for an award to be made". This followed a detailed correspondence in which I had explained that these were topics of great interest in the United States from whence I had just returned. The next time I tried I got the response that the committee "was doubtful about the probability of success in the proposed experimental work". This might have seemed reasonable were it not for the fact that I had already explained that superradiance had not been seen in the carbon dioxide laser, that self-induced transparency was not the subject of a large number of existing experiments, etc. In fact these phenomena were to be at the heart of international quantum optics for the next five years, but not in the UK. The fact I had cited a number of unpublished papers by workers in the US was deemed "camouflage" rather than deep knowledge of a new and exciting field.

Between 1971, when I was awarded a grant of Pounds 7,500, and 1982 I made eight applications for support, all but two of which were turned down. I learned on the grapevine that grants for my research were being refused largely on account of one particular individual. No doubt he had his own scientific reasons for taking the attitude he did. In the end, however, I wrote to the chairman of the physics board and was told it was not his job to tell me how to write a successful grant application.

One day a member of the secretariat of the then SERC telephoned to say: "X has now left the relevant committee and we suggest you should apply for a grant". I did and I was, finally, successful.

I am currently failing to be funded for work that I really believe to be important; history seems to be repeating itself.

I have no illusion about the ultimate quality of my work, no doubt there are physicists who are ten times better than I. But some people have been awarded grants perhaps 50 times greater in value than those I have received. I find it hard to believe I am that many times worse. Many other people could argue similar, strong cases.

I am considering retirement from research as well as from paid employment. I have the time, energy and the inclination to do research but, except for one more year of a long-range interaction, no financial support. It is an unequal struggle. In 35 years, during which I published four books and over 100 papers, I have had eight grants with the award of only one research assistant. I suspect there are people who have received eight grants in the past ten years, for larger amounts and with a much higher success rate. I doubt EPSRC could ever be persuaded to publish a consolidated list of them. It would be interesting to see how well it correlated with those who have served longest and most often on the various panels. Throughout my career there have always been a few individuals, no doubt seriously believing they know best for the rest of us, who have wielded considerable power in laser and optical physics.

There is a solution to the problem. It is in line with Peierls's edict: namely that you should back as many horses in the race as you can. I suggest the EPSRC throw out the panels, throw out the referees and have a lottery for all the available funds. Such a system would be fairer than the present one and would also be better at supporting truly original research. Pure chance must give me more hope than the opinions of a subset of my peers.

Les Allen is visiting professor in physics, University of Essex, and honorary professor, University of St Andrews.

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