Research intelligence - Mighty oaks and little acorns

Curtailing research freedom cuts the odds of producing great work, leading scientist argues. Paul Jump reports

May 12, 2011

Credit: Alan Burles/Alamy
Scaled-down paperwork: closing funding councils would save time and free up cash for scientists, says Lady Greenfield

As research grant success rates continue to sink, research councils are contemplating implementing measures to limit demand. But one distinguished academic thinks it is time to "stop rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic".

Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at the University of Oxford and chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, lamented the low success rates in the House of Lords earlier this year.

One concern is the waste of applicants' time. Another is the potential for "nepotism" when members of grant-reviewing panels are also competing in the grant competition. Lady Greenfield thinks that rather than taking the "cosmetic" step of leaving the room when their application is discussed, reviewers should be excluded from the competition but rewarded for their efforts on the panel with a basic project grant.

But, for her, the biggest problem with the status quo is the risk aversion inherent in peer review - particularly in times of economic scarcity - and what she sees as a decline in researchers' opportunities to carry out basic research.

While not against translational research, Lady Greenfield thinks more of it should be funded by private money. In an interview with Times Higher Education, she suggested that the government could broker syndicates of venture capitalists, who would give grants to researchers in return for privileged access to their research and first refusal on any potential commercialisation of it.

She conceded that good science required many different approaches, and that some people would be happy to be part of a "more automated and industrialised" research base than was the case when she began her research career. She also agreed that modern research had become "more rigorous and less anecdotal".

But Lady Greenfield feared that people like her, for whom the thrill of science was to have "originality and independence of thought", could be demoralised by being obliged to join large teams - particularly those carrying out "bias-free" research, which she depicted as eschewing hypotheses in favour of using a particular technique to generate data from which conclusions might be extrapolated.

The happiest time of her career, she said, had been in her late 20s, before she had tenure, when she had survived on a Medical Research Council grant that provided funding for only two postgraduate students but had allowed her "to go up and down intellectual culs-de-sac without feeling I was being audited or that I had to rush into print".

"When it was your own work, theory and lab, being a scientist was much more analogous to being a painter or a musician," she explained.

"The intellectual freedom and independence made the soft money and long hours worthwhile. I just wonder how many young people now have that added value."

The former head of the Royal Institution also thinks preventing scientists from "developing very basic ideas and challenging paradigms" is bad for science.

"I challenge (business secretary) Vince Cable's assertion that basic research will still be funded," she said.

"How are we going to evaluate excellence beforehand? It is like me saying I am only going to bet on winning horses. Science is only excellent once you have the data. In that way I think we should let a thousand flowers bloom."

Her "very heretical" suggestion, made in the Lords, is to abolish the research councils and research excellence framework and divide the research budget, along with the "vast sums saved from the bureaucracy", equally among researchers.

One "very crude" way to estimate the amount of funding that each would receive is to add the research council resource budget - around £2.5 billion a year over the next spending period - to the quality-related research budget - around £1.7 billion a year - and divide it by the number of research-active academics that made submissions to the last research assessment exercise - just over 50,000 full-time equivalents. This gives a figure of around £82,000 a year.

She is confident that the sacking of research council staff and the sale of their premises, plus some redistribution of funding from humanities, could push the figure toward £100,000 for each scientist.

"The average academic, if offered that without having to write a grant (application), would probably jump at it," Lady Greenfield said.

Principal investigators would be able to pool resources on bigger projects, but would find it much harder to build "industrial-sized" groups.

"I don't think there is a relation between big groups and Nobel prizes and I don't see why wanting to have a big group should automatically trump the ability to test a great idea that is quite unusual," she said.

She said grants could come with a "penalty clause" for gross negligence or underperformance - provided that the criteria were not so "pernicious" as merely to count publications and impact factors, forcing researchers to pursue relatively small, mainstream questions.

"Good science is also about originality, how full a story people are telling and how big a question they are asking," she said. "Of course some things wouldn't work but if you only invest in the science that works then something is wrong."

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