Sir Paul Nurse: science needs inspiration, not top-down allocation

Backing winners can lead to poor-quality research, warns Royal Society head

October 10, 2013

Nurse’s advice: funders must steer clear of ‘too finely grained’ recommendations, says Sir Paul

Ring-fencing money for certain areas of scientific investigation risks backing “low-quality” research, the president of the Royal Society has warned, despite the government unveiling financial support for eight “great” technologies earlier this year.

Sir Paul Nurse argued that instead of “ring-fencing and micromanaging” resources, scientific leaders should instead be “educating and inspiring” researchers to work in areas they believe are of particular interest.

In January, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, announced that eight areas of research and development would be targeted by the coalition government in order to drive growth.

In July, he unveiled £85 million in funding for research equipment in three of these areas: robotics and autonomous systems, advanced materials and grid-scale energy storage.

And in December last year, the Treasury announced that it was distributing £21.5 million to find practical applications for graphene - the strong, light and highly conductive “super-material” discovered by University of Manchester researchers in 2004.

Speaking at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in Singapore on 2 October, Sir Paul said that where money was set aside for particular purposes, “such initiatives have a tendency to attract less creative and effective scientists who are simply following where resources are being made available”.

He added: “Such approaches do run the risk of funding low-quality research.”

Another problem with too much top-down direction was that it tended to come from “senior researchers” on research council committees “who sometimes are not particularly research-active”, he said, and therefore were not at the “cutting edge” of investigation.

Research funding bodies should focus on “high-level priorities” and avoid the temptation to become “too finely grained” in their recommendations, Sir Paul said.

“Decisions as often as possible should be made as close as you can to the researcher…actively carrying out the research.”

However, he did add that this approach could require “modification” where research was close to reaching a specific goal or application that would benefit the economy or society as a whole.

If scientific leaders did want to direct research effort into a particular area, they should do so “not through ring-fencing or micromanagement” but by “educating and inspiring” scientists.

“It might be more useful to undertake a process of education and inspiration of researchers so that they become motivated to work in that area,” Sir Paul suggested.

“If the area really is as promising as the research leader thinks, then it should be easy to persuade high-quality scientists that there is some interesting work to be done.”

Sir Paul’s comments are part of a long-running debate over whether the government should “pick winners” - focus on particular research strengths that could help to boost the economy or society.

In his speech announcing the “eight great technologies” in January, Mr Willetts said that his approach was “not the same as picking winners, which notoriously became losers picking the pockets of taxpayers”.

Instead, the government was “focusing on R&D and on particular technologies…not backing particular businesses”, he explained.

Chariots of Ire: Puttnam castigates ‘complacent’ sector’

Universities suffer from a “disease of complacency” and are often “actively resistant” to technological change, according to the Oscar-winning film producer Lord Puttnam of Queensgate.

During a highly critical address at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in Singapore on 4 October, he also attacked the academy’s tenure system and the lack of rewards for good teachers.

Lord Puttnam, who is the chancellor of The Open University and whose films include the 1981 Academy Award winner Chariots of Fire, said that for universities, “existing strengths will count for little unless we embrace advances in audio-visual technology”.

But despite “evidence about huge unsettling changes everywhere”, universities had adopted “Canute-like thinking” towards technological advances and were more generally laden down with an “incumbency” mindset.

The US tenure system, for example, “badly needs to be taken up and roundly discussed”, Lord Puttnam said.

He added: “It’s an idea that would not be taken seriously in other professions.”

The academy was suffering from a “disease of complacency”, he warned, was “too self-referential”, overly “pleased with itself” and “actively resistant to change”.

As an example, he recounted his experience of a collaboration between Google and The Open University on online provision, an initiative he had been involved with.

During one meeting to discuss the project’s progress, it emerged that one of the work streams had stalled because two academics at the university had not found time to meet each other for six months, Lord Puttnam recalled.

This illustrated the “mismatch” between the “drive and energy of youth” at Google and the culture in parts of the university sector, he said.

“Reputation and complacency have become the real enemy” in universities, he said, which “tend to be fear-based environments” where innovation is stifled.

Universities needed to be “more self-critical, particularly in respect of teaching quality”, the peer said, warning that there was a risk that major research-intensive institutions could end up abandoning pedagogy altogether.

There is “nothing like sufficient credit [given] to good teachers”, he said.

“Your career advancement as a good teacher is very limited.”

Lord Puttnam has been involved with a number of education-related bodies and has chaired both the General Teaching Council for England and Nesta (formerly the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts).

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Reader's comments (1)

Grrrrrr.... I meant to give a 5 star rating. As I read this, I kept thinking "bingo" EVERY vp of research and teaching needs to read this.