Save our science

March 12, 1999

What is wrong with the way we do science? Susan Greenfield gave Tony Blair suggestions for reform

The best type of science discovery is that which departs radically from what has gone before and embraces the widest possible scope - ideally across conventional disciplines.

One example was Linus Pauling's insight of importing the principles of physics into chemistry to elucidate the nature of the chemical bond, or Frank Macfarlane Burnet's idea that the principles of Darwinism could be applied to immunology. How can we foster a scientific environment in Britain that is sufficiently exhilarating to be conducive to such innovative insights?

The first issue is the obvious one - money. The funding of basic science, once traditionally a public-sector endeavour, is increasingly supported in the UK by large companies that are realising that they can exploit innovative ideas within universities.

In 1987 I was a beneficiary of an alliance between Oxford University and the then Squibb Corporation, when Pounds 20 million enabled the pharmacology department to move into a custom-designed building and put forward research projects for funding over a seven-year interval.

At the time, some dissenters accused us of "selling our souls". But the reality was that it was we who proposed the research. Squibb merely had first refusal. If the company declined to fund a particular line of research, we were free to approach alternative sources, both public and private.

And the very real concern that we would not be able to publish our research because the company would want to develop it under conditions of commercial confidentiality was allayed by an agreement that the company's patent lawyers would screen research abstracts very swiftly, usually within a month. If appropriate, a patent to develop the research would then be filed and full publication of the research would proceed thereafter.

This is not to pretend that there are no drawbacks to depending on companies to fund scientific research. One problem is that private-sector funding inevitably favours product-related disciplines, such as pharmacology, over less applied subjects, such as basic physiology. Nonetheless, the government should try to encourage private-sector income as part of the portfolio of resources for British science - as they are by offering extra tax incentives for the companies concerned.

Some universities have also made money from scientific research by setting up spin-off companies. Given that the largest team of technology transfer executives associated with a British university is only some five strong - it is clear that much needs to be done to exploit this avenue to the full.

If there were more trained technology staff in universities, they could pay regular visits to all science departments to spot commercial possibilities. I suggest that 1 per cent of each government grant for research should be earmarked for a technology audit. This would go a long way to ensuring that no commercial prospect slips through the net.

The National Health Service already does this for the Pounds 400 million it spends annually on research grants. If the research and higher education funding councils took the same line for the Pounds 2 billion spent every year on research grants in universities, all academic research would be audited to see if it could be turned into money-making products.

For ideas that concern scientific principles rather than products, scientists still need to apply for public-sector funding. The most contentious issue here is that the funding councils operate on a system of peer review, whereby every research proposal is approved or rejected by a panel of working academics. These research council panels, however, are selected according to no published or objective guidelines. The committees and boards of the funding councils do not represent the scientific community as a whole but are, rather, a self-perpetuating genre - of middle-aged men.

Perhaps as a result, only a staggeringly small number of women scientists even bother to apply for grants. One way of addressing this problem might be to invest more money in "returner" research grants, aimed at those who have had several years' absence due to child-caring. And the tendency for panels to be made up of middle-aged men could be addressed by introducing a "grey beard" system, whereby the panels are drawn from retired scientists with no vested interests.

Other options are a straight division of research money to all those with tenured positions (this would give every tenured scientist Pounds 70,000 a year) or a lottery, which would at least have the advantage of complete fairness.

Less radical -Jand more practical - changes might involve two parallel panels operating side by side with only grants approved by both panels actually being awarded. Additionally, applicants could be encouraged to present their proposals orally, to ensure free and frank discussion of any reservations panel members might have.

Another very serious problem is that university science offers scant job security for young scientists. Although the funding bodies each have their own variations of a pyramid-type career structure, those who do not make it up to the next stage suddenly become unemployed. This prospect is hardly likely to attract as many good young scientists as possible.

I suggest that more university-funded posts should be set up for those unsuccessful in applying for their own innovative research funds, but who are invaluable in the practical expedition of projects. And a national agency could be set up to match postdoctoral workers with jobs and, in some cases, to find placements in other careers. As a final incentive, perhaps scientists on fixed-term contracts could receive performance-related pay.

Truly great scientific discoveries are attributable to the originality, self-confidence and courage of an individual scientist. The ideal scientists of the future will be able to talk to the public and to politicians. They will regard themselves as part of a wide scientific community and will entertain in their labs journalists, teachers and historians of science.

One helpful move in this last regard would be to reorganise the administration of scientific activity. At the moment, research is dealt with by the Department of Trade and Industry, science education by the Department for Education and Employment and public understanding of science by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Where is the word "science" in these titles? The setting-up of a virtual Department of Science that covers all three strands surely merits consideration.

This article is based on a lecture delivered at No 10 Downing Street yesterday. Susan Greenfield is professor of pharmacology at Oxford University and director of the Royal Institution, London.

SCIENTIFIC BREAKTHROUGHS IN THE NEXT CENTURY

* The discovery that the universe was expanding at an accelerating rate was dubbed by the journal Science "Breakthrough of the Year" in 1998. But we still do not know if the universe will expand for ever or collapse under its own gravity.

* A current focus of physics is on the deep structure of space time and the origins of everything at the beginning of the universe in the Big Bang.Two theories will have to be reconciled - that of quantum theory and that of gravitation. String theory may provide the answer. If so, then we can foresee the type of illumination quantum gravity will bring to the universe: it will show that the deep structure of space time is not as a cloud of points but as a collection of string-like lines.

* Nanoscience focuses on the production of objects whose characteristic size is about a nanometre - a millionth of a millimetre. In the next century, it is predicted that electrical circuits will be at least 100 times smaller than current ones.

* In the past ten years, it has become possible to simulate, using supercomputers, the behaviour of the whole earth (oceans, winds, etc). These models are the basis of climate prediction and will become more realistic as time goes on.

* The human genome will be mapped, and we will be able to answer the question of how genetically modified foods or genetic engineering might, or might, not affect the human body.

* Progress will be made on how the brain generates consciousness - our awareness of everything: sounds, colours, pain..

What's wrong with how we do science? Join the debate at www.nexus.org/ext/soapbox or email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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