UK science must not roll over and play dead

December 7, 2007

Constraints on autonomy via RAE red tape are suffocating Britain's research innovators, writes Donald Braben. The inquisition known as the research assessment exercise passed its deadline for "invited" submissions a few days ago. The die has been cast. Many academics will be doubtful about whether they have shown their department's work in the best light, whether they have correctly described hard-won publications already approved by peer review, and indeed, whether they have a future in research. Countless files now pass to armies of selected academics to examine in minute detail. Their highly specific and irrevocable verdicts will be announced a year from now. What a way to run a university!

Steady on, some will say, the world has changed. We have increased the number of universities. We must find new ways of distributing scarce resources and of keeping our universities competitive, they say. However, the problems are global, but the exercises in self-flagellation are almost entirely confined to the UK. The US, a frequently cited bellwether in the competitiveness stakes, has many more universities per unit population than the UK. Nevertheless, it is an RAE-free zone. (The influential US journal Science described the RAE as the world's biggest peer-review process.)

Supporters claim that our universities have become more competitive since the RAEs began. That might be true, but one can be competitive only if one has competitors. Great scientists such as Planck, Einstein, Rutherford, Dirac, Avery, Kendrew, McClintock and perhaps 300 others of similar stature - I call them the Planck Club - originally had none. Indeed, their work defined new fields and their discoveries shaped the 20th century. Many came from the UK.

Indeed, UK academics were once perhaps the most creative. Between 1945 and 1979, when they were mainly free to do as they pleased, they won 41 Nobel prizes, which is more than one a year. These prizes are, of course, the ultimate in quality assessments. Between 1980 and 2006, when we steadily increased constraints on scientific freedom, the equivalent number was ten, or one every 2.6 years. However, scientists from institutes that continued to protect freedom - the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, for example - won six of these and one was from industry. Thus, the rate at which researchers at UK universities win Nobels has fallen by nearly a factor of ten. Loss of freedom would seem to be related to the apparent loss in creativity.

This should not be surprising. When we aim to make universities more competitive, we encourage researchers to compete in fashionable fields and to publish in reputable journals. They are doing reasonably well in these respects, but these policies inhibit them from tackling unfashionable problems and, if they are lucky, making great discoveries. Furthermore, the US often dominates because of its size. Direct competition can put UK academics at a severe disadvantage. This is particularly true in the biological sciences. The MRC, their major source of public funds, has a budget of some £500 million. The National Institutes of Health - its rough equivalent in the US - has some $28 billion (£13.5 billion) to invest in similar programmes.

At Einstein's school in Germany there was an exceptional master who tried to make his pupils think for themselves, whereas the rest encouraged Kadavergehorsamkeit , "the obedience of the corpse", as Einstein put it. The RAE and other impositions of the peer-review bureaucracy foster a corpse-like acceptance of the new regimes. Dissenting individuals in the UK not only risk damage to their careers but might also prejudice their departments' futures. But their continuance, however they might be reformed, can result only in also-ran status for the UK, with success being roughly proportional to its relative population. They are also likely to lead to the extinction of the university as we have known it.

It is essential that we create an environment that leads to a 21st-century Planck Club. Potential members are highly unlikely to prosper under current regimes. Our future will indeed be bleak without their discoveries and the enormous boost they would give to economic growth. My colleagues at the US National Science Board's Task Force on Transformative Research have recently made a start on this. I have described possible ways forward in my book. It will not be easy, as powerful interests are vested in the new regimes. The vital first step is for a critical mass of influential people to begin seriously to question the unproved assertions that form the basis of so much science policy today. Nowhere is this more urgent than in the UK.

Donald W. Braben is a visiting professor at University College London and the author of Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization to be published by Wiley in February 2008.

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