Why I believe science administrators do more harm than good

March 7, 2003

How do you promote innovative science and start a scientific revolution? Historians and philosophers have long puzzled over this, as have science administrators hoping to foster breakthroughs through their policies. Only working scientists are expected to lay golden eggs - but everyone is keen to claim credit for a big discovery.

Most discoveries are unexpected. No one can "explain" them, let alone link them to specific policies. This is partly because good ideas could just as easily lead to dead ends. James Watson and Francis Crick deserve praise for persevering while others laughed at them. But they would be non-entities if mother nature had found a triple helix sexier than the double helix.

A much better defined question is: what is the secret for stifling good science? This is far easier to answer.

My homeland, Portugal, has a poor scientific record. Its researchers are overburdened with teaching loads, and there is no correlation between scientific achievement and career success. It's no surprise that if you take time and motivation away from scientists, they'll produce only mediocre science. (This phenomenon is not peculiar to Portugal.) Another guaranteed recipe for killing creativity is administration. In Britain, scientists are bombarded with red tape. Administrators don't seem to realise that if scientists dutifully completed all the forms they were meant to complete, they would be unable to do any research. If Britain still produces lots of good science, it's because its scientists have become very good at taking the piss.

Then we have scientific journals. They're supposed to provide quality control and publish cutting-edge science. Yet I know many a brilliant young scientist who gave up because of too many rejections from a journal.

So although I cannot reveal the secrets of good science - it seems easier to answer the question by its negative - I would like science policy-makers to discuss these issues. But when I raised the matter in my book Faster than the Speed of Light those who felt targeted seemed more concerned with the language used than with the issues. My use of expressions such as "[they are] scientific pimps in a scenario where the scientists are forced to play the whores" and "[they suffer from] envy of the penis" caused consternation. Scientists are not expected to use such language.

A few months before, the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin wrote an article that voiced many views similar to mine. But he couched his words in language fit for a queen. And he was completely ignored by the policy-makers. It seems you need to add the shock value of swearing before anyone takes any notice. Even then, despite all the indignation, I don't see any serious debate.

Scientific institutions like to be seen as encouraging criticism, but they pay only lip service to it. They may invite "friendly debate", but they do not acknowledge receipt of friendly letters criticising them. And when you voice your views in public, they call the lawyers. This is why my book has been edited for its British publication.

I suppose it could be worse. In Portugal a few years ago, one of my friends was suspended from the Gulbenkian Foundation when he criticised its science policies. A few centuries ago, my book would have been burnt. The Inquisition knew that if you apply punitive measures to those who say what they think, you'll kill science - you can add this to the recipes above.

So what's the secret of promoting good science? Here's my view: there are no rules - it's anarchy. Perhaps science administrators should seek their moment of glory not so much in taking credit for others' work but in not discouraging it.

João Magueijo's Faster than the Speed of Light was published this week (William Heinemann, £16.99).

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