Science policy for debate

January 20, 1995

In his interview with Kam Patel (THES, January 13), Steve Jones refers to his failure to obtain research support from Natural Environment Research Council, with a quoted figure of "12 to 14 research grant applications rejected". While I am relieved to read that Jones does not hold me personally responsible, he goes on to make statements about NERC that demand a response to put the record straight. I wish to make five points.

1. "It is NERC that has been responsible for rejected his research proposals." According to our records, Jones has applied to NERC for a research grant eight times since 1974. Four of these applications have been funded, yielding a success rate of 50 per cent. Our current average success rate is 20 per cent, so Jones has not fared badly. Even among grants rated alpha we are able to support only 35 per cent: our objective is to fund more, but the resources are not available. In addition to receiving grants from NERC, Jones has supervised two NERC PhD studentships.

2. Jones has not applied to NERC for a grant since the publication of the White Paper in May 1993, thus the argument that I am ". . . being hampered by the Government's wealth-creation policy" is inappropriate for Jones's own case.

3. Jones says that his ideas are "not . . . being judged by the best scientists". When Jones's applications arrived in NERC they were sent, according to our standard procedure, to five or six referees. For the applications where records remain, the following points emerge. Jones's referees included most of the leading names in the United Kingdom in population genetics/evolutionary biology, two of which were FRSs in each case. The referees also included leading geneticists from United States and Europe. Any criticisms from the referees were fed back to Jones to allow him to respond. His responses, together with the application and the referees' comments, were then presented to a committee along with the other applications in that "grant round", for ranking. This process is as transparent and impartial as possible. The rotating membership of committee included leading figures in the community 4. Jones thinks that the "system . . . is deeply corrupt". NERC has carried out its own analysis to check whether there is any evidence for nepotism in its grant-awarding committees. The results of a "before, during and after" comparison of individual scientists showed that the probability of success of an individual in obtaining grants did not increase when he or she joined a grant committee.

5. The general question of whether or not the Government's emphasis on "wealth creation and quality of life" in relation to science is right is a matter for debate. However three points are worth noting. (a) The White Paper does not suggest that the research councils shift to supporting applied research: they are still focused on basic and strategic research; (b) the message of the White Paper is for industry and academia to become better integrated so that the full potential of new discoveries can be exploited where appropriate; (c) the recognition by Government that the future economic and environmental well-being of the UK depends critically on the science and technology is a substantial fillip to the scientific community. This has been further enhanced by two successive Public Expenditure Survey settlements (1994 and 1995) in which the allocation to the Office of Science and Technology has been good in the context of a drive by government to cut public expenditure.

It is obviously important that issues of national science policy are debated fully. Those of us involved in formation and implementation of Government policies discuss and analyse them on an almost daily basis, often with vigorously argued opposing views. Steve Jones has the talent (our sense of respect and admiration is mutual) and the audience to bring the debate at a serious level to a wider audience within and outside the scientific community. I hope that he will do so.

John R. Krebs Chief Executive Natural Environment Research Council

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