Pioneers need not apply

The research councils' use of peer 'preview' is fundamentally flawed and a pathway to mediocrity, argues Donald W. Braben

September 8, 2011

Credit: Femke De Jong

What are the research councils for? Last week, Times Higher Education reported that success rates for the Economic and Social Research Council's standard grants fell from 14 per cent in 2009-10 to 12 per cent last year. Rates for the other councils are a little higher, but for many academics success is a forlorn hope.

Until about 1970, academic researchers were usually given modest funds to use as they pleased. This apparent profligacy led to a prodigious harvest of unpredicted discoveries and huge stimulants to economic growth.

But then the government, with the best of intentions, began increasing the number of universities. Among the unintended consequences were more academics than could be funded as of right, and an increasing obligation on researchers to compete for funds. Peer review was given sweeping new powers. The consequences came slowly: as with the parable of the boiled frog (if placed in boiling water, it will jump out; if the water is warmed slowly it will be boiled alive), academics did not protest as their creativity was quietly undermined and managed.

Peer review is rightly acclaimed as the gold standard for evaluating completed works, but there is little evidence it can predict potential. However, the councils say that "independent expert peer review" is central to their work.

It is said that peer review is like democracy: it's not the best but it's the best we know. But science is not democratic. One doubtful scientist can be right while 100 convinced colleagues can be wrong. Indeed, the physicist Richard Feynman once defined science as "the belief in the ignorance of experts". Specifically, peer review of grant applications, or peer "preview", is inimical to radically new ideas. Today, however, the all-powerful peer-preview bureaucracy is the determinant of excellence. It is taboo even to criticise it. So the natural inclination to oppose major challenges to the status quo has become institutionalised. For radical research, one can argue that "the best we know" has become the worst.

"Independent expert peer review" is contradictory. One submits a proposal and the councils ask experts to assess it. But these experts are likely to include proposers' closest competitors, even if they are selected internationally, because science is global - and real pioneers have no peers, of course. How then can the councils ensure that reviews are independent? To make matters worse, these experts can pass judgement anonymously: applicants don't know who put the boot in.

I suggest that the misuse of peer review is at the heart of the research councils' problems. Before about 1970, they largely restricted its use to the assessment of applications for large grants or expensive equipment. Scientific leaders protected the seed corn, ensuring that young scientists could launch radical challenges if they were sufficiently inspired, dedicated and determined. Today, the experts whose ignorance they would challenge might also influence their chances of funding.

Unfortunately, peer preview is woven into the fabric of research council governance. It would take years to replace even if there were general agreement to do so, and that seems far off. Indeed, the councils have now appointed themselves leaders in renewing the UK's manufacturing base. They will not foster the unpredictable, as their predecessors did, but concentrate on areas of supposed national advantage. Is this a sensible policy when the UK commits only 1.8 per cent of national income to research and development while the US and other competitors commit 2.8 per cent and more? Because science is global, the best bets are much the same everywhere. We must not neglect the mainstreams, of course, but we must find ways of allowing pioneers to pioneer. Instead, councils announce that reviewers in future must also take national requirements into account: it does not matter that the scientists who made such discoveries as the sources of nuclear power, genetic structure, molecular biology and lasers would have failed these ridiculous tests.

The consensus is that there are no disciplined alternatives to peer preview: warts and all, we must accept it. That is not true. My experience indicates that any dedicated scientist could create a viable alternative given freedom and very modest funding. In my case, following an invitation from BP in 1980, I created and ran for more than 10 years a successful initiative, Venture Research, with precisely that remit. Others could do the same.

The research councils are taking UK research down pathways to mediocrity and using peer review as justification. We - the academic community - must stop them, or accept the dire consequences.

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