Peer review is not the best way to promote major breakthroughs

Identifying and seed-funding scientists with ground-breaking ideas is a low-risk, high-reward alternative to traditional grant funding, says Donald Braben

August 19, 2021
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Before about 1970, academics made many unpredicted transformational scientific discoveries. These include Max Planck (quantisation), Albert Einstein (photo-electric effect), Paul Dirac (who predicted antimatter) and some 500 others: roughly the number of Nobel prizewinners in that time.

I call this glorious assembly the Planck Club. Their brilliant work inspired such technologies as the laser and myriad spin-offs, the electronic and telecommunications revolutions, nuclear power, biotechnology, and medical diagnostics and techniques galore. The value of these over the century might be £100 trillion in today’s money.

The US National Science Foundation is poised to see its budget more than double (to $18 billion (£13 billion)) by 2026, as the US seeks to “out-innovate” the rest of the world. The UK government has also pledged to more than double research spending by 2024-25. However, spending increases are not enough. Science policymakers must also recognise and act upon the fact that the primary source of Western innovation has historically stemmed mainly from free, iconoclastic academics. 

To be fair, the UK’s plans do include the £800 million Advanced Research and Invention Agency. Deliberately constituted outside UK Research and Innovation, Aria is intended to be a high-risk, high-reward agency that bypasses standard funding procedures. Its godfather, Dominic Cummings – who also oversaw the abolition of UKRI’s requirement for grant applicants to predict the impact of their work – told MPs in March that the agency should be run by an entirely independent director, with “good taste in scientific ideas and in scientific researchers”, alongside up to four trustees. Without peer review, they may be able to identify future members of the Planck Club while they are still in their twenties.

Whether that structural vision survives Cummings’ acrimonious departure from government remains to be seen. But even if it does, there is still the question of how the rest of the UK’s promised £22 billion – should it be forthcoming in the autumn spending review – will be spent.

Ways must be found to support the few whose research transforms understanding and leads to radical change. However, Western governments and funding agencies – including Aria – are increasingly focusing on technologies and problems that urgently need solution; essential work, of course: in the short term, nations must compete. But few Planck Club members were driven initially by humanity’s perceived problems.  

My experience with Venture Research, an initiative that ran from 1980 to 1990, sponsored by British Petroleum (BP), is relevant. It gave the freedom enjoyed by Planck Club members to a few scientists whose proposals we considered to have the potential to radically change the way we think about something important.

Instead of using peer review, we spoke to some applicants face-to-face, fostering mutual trust and facilitating feedback in real time. We received some 10,000 proposals from European and North American scientists and supported about 40, almost all of which had been previously rejected by mainstream funding agencies.

This low-cost initiative – the budget was some £20 million over the decade – was successful and has so far led to some 14 breakthroughs. Many have won major prizes and honours. One was Steve Davies, now emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford. His “Understanding Molecular Architecture” project discovered small artificial enzymes for efficient chiral selection. In 1990, he set up a company, Oxford Asymmetry, to exploit them, selling it a decade later for £316 million.

Based on this experience, in 2009 UCL created a Venture Research initiative using its own resources. So far, it has identified one scientist, Nick Lane, from about 50 applicants, without using peer review. Lane proposed a theoretical study of the role of mitochondria in cells costing some £150,000 over three years. His project has since expanded to study the origin of life. Its growing scientific potential has attracted over £5 million in external funding, more than 30 times UCL’s initial outlay. That shows that conventional agencies now grasp the importance of his approach – but he would never have got off the ground without UCL’s start-up funding.

The problem of how to reconstitute the Planck Club could be partially solved if some universities were to follow UCL’s lead. I calculate that 20th-century levels of academic creativity could be restored by supporting about a thousand scientists globally over the 21st century in this unusual way. However, it is essential that the small team of selectors (one or two people) appointed by each participating university should have no preconceived ideas about what is going to be important.

These initiatives will be highly unusual. They should not have a budget: there will be no spend in a typical year as standards are so high. When a candidate is found, the university should fund them from a contingency fund.

But it need not fear for its budget. Absurd though it may sound, this approach could accurately be described as low risk, high reward. Early stage venture research is remarkably cheap. But history teaches that unpredicted, transformational, game-changing research is done by individuals: they must not be constrained by third parties as no one knows which direction they should take. 

Donald Braben is an honorary professor in the office of the vice-provost for research, UCL. He is author of Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilisation (Stripe Press, 2020).

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