We must ensure that fortune favours the 500

The work of 500 scientists transformed the 20th century. Universities and funders must do more to make certain that the flow of groundbreaking discoveries continues, says Donald Braben 

April 20, 2017
Nate Kitch illustration (20 April 2017)
Source: Nate Kitch

Today’s academic research management considerably limits the range of discoveries. Success rates in bids for state funding are rarely above 20 per cent and the only researchers to get funded are those who can strongly suggest to colleagues that their work will be the best use of the resources requested, is in a priority field and will impact on a socio-economic problem.

Since about 1970, there have been large changes in the way that academic research is funded owing to substantially increased numbers of academics and universities. The unforeseen consequence is that exciting, imaginative, unpredictable research without thought of practical ends is stymied.

This problem is hardly ever discussed, but had these changes applied throughout the 20th century, some 500 major discoveries and the subsequent economic surges that they prompted might have been denied to us, and modern standards of living might have been little better than those that people had to endure 100 years ago. These discoveries led to a host of technologies and medical treatments that we regard as indispensable, including computers, global positioning, the internet, lasers, mobile telephones, nuclear power, television, medical scanners, X-ray scanning, antibiotics and any number of life-saving drugs. They can all trace their origins to a few individuals who challenged what was thought possible. Some of these scientists worked in companies but most were pioneering academics with highly individual and original approaches.

Science’s potential is as great as ever. There are few fields that we fully understand and there is no reason to check the pace or range of research. Yet in 2013, President Barack Obama, in a speech to the US National Academy of Sciences, said: “To maintain our edge...we’ve got to protect our rigorous peer-review system and ensure that we only fund proposals that promise the biggest bang for taxpayer dollars...That’s what’s going to maintain our standards of scientific excellence for years to come.”

Everyone wants research to be as successful as possible. But this philosophy, explicit in virtually every funding agency, has a vital ingredient missing – total freedom of thought. Concerned that their programmes are too restrictive, some agencies have created schemes to search for potentially seminal ideas that might break away from a rigorously imposed predictability, but their selections are usually based on the peer review processes that they use normally.

We must find a way of identifying and giving unfettered funding to the scientists capable of making game-changing discoveries. One solution may be for a few great universities to select from their staff those with revolutionary ambition and fund them from their own resources – as used to be common. The selections would be made by one or two senior scientists appointed by the university – the same people regardless of the field – and be based on the originality of the applicant’s ideas and level of dissent. Those ideas could radically change the way that we think about something important – but would not have the obvious relevance to national goals that would attract funding through established channels. Applicants could be of any age and should be exempt from normal review procedures for at least 10 years. They should not be set targets either, and should be free to tackle any problem for as long as it takes.

Applicants should be assured that they are not in competition: all or none of them may be selected. But the standards set should be exceptionally high. And, given that only about 500 scientists worldwide made transformative discoveries during the 20th century, most universities should not be surprised to find that their schemes have no successful applicants in most years.

I was involved in setting up a pilot scheme operating along these lines at University College London in 2008, modelled on British Petroleum’s very successful Venture Research initiative, which I ran. Initial application is trivially easy – applicants merely have to outline their work’s importance and why it would not normally be funded. Final selection is by face-to-face dialogue. To date, there have been some 50 applicants but only one academic has satisfied the rigorous conditions – Nick Lane, who is now reader in evolutionary biochemistry. His proposal to investigate the role of energy flow in the origin and early evolution of cells ran for three years. It was very successful and, subsequently, his much broader proposal to investigate the origin of cells attracted large funds from an international benefactor who also takes an enlightened view of research management.

Obama also warned in his 2013 speech of the need to support the next generation of “dreamers and risk-takers”. Today, there are more than 1 million scientists worldwide, so only a few universities need make the proposed changes in order to set creativity free. The alternative is stagnation and a scientific future that is bereft of the kinds of discoveries that can transform both understanding and global social and economic prospects.

Donald Braben is an honorary professor in the department of Earth sciences and in the office of the vice-provost (research) at University College London. His latest book is Promoting the Planck Club: How Defiant Youth, Irreverent Researchers and Liberated Universities Can Foster Prosperity Indefinitely (Wiley, 2014).

This article is endorsed in a personal capacity by:

John Allen, University College London

Hagan Bayley FRS, University of Oxford

David Colquhoun FRS, University College London

Merlin Crossley, University of New South Wales

John Dainton FRS, Cockcroft Institute, Daresbury Laboratory, UK

Steve Davies, University of Oxford

Rod Dowler, chair, Industry Forum, UK

R. John Ellis FRS, University of Warwick

Irene Engle, US Naval Academy

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, University of Notre Dame

Desmond Fitzgerald, Materia Medica, Knutsford, UK

Donald Geman, US National Academy of Sciences, Johns Hopkins University

Dudley Herschbach, US National Academy of Sciences, Nobel laureate, Harvard University

Pat Heslop-Harrison, University of Leicester

Sui Huang, Institute for Systems Biology, Seattle

Herbert Huppert FRS, University of Cambridge

James Ladyman, University of Bristol

Peter Lawrence FRS, University of Cambridge

Mark Leake, University of York

Chris Leaver CBE FRS, University of Oxford

Angus Macintyre FRS, Queen Mary University of London

John Mattick FAA, director, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney

J. S. Moore, US National Academy of Engineering, University of Texas at Austin

Beatrice Pelloni, Heriot-Watt University

Gerald Pollack, University of Washington

Douglas Randall, former US National Science Board member, University of Missouri

Sir Richard J. Roberts FRS, Nobel laureate, New England Biolabs

Helmut Schwarz, Fellow of the European Academy of Sciences, Technical University of Berlin

Ken Seddon OBE, Queen’s University Belfast

Colin Self, Newcastle University

Timothy Spiller, University of York

Gene Stanley, US National Academy of Sciences, Boston University

Harry Swinney, US National Academy of Sciences, University of Texas at Austin

Sir John Meurig Thomas FRS, Hon FREng, University of Cambridge

William Troy, University of Pittsburgh

Robin Tucker, Lancaster University

Claudio Vita-Finzi, FBA, Natural History Museum, London


Print headline: We must ensure that fortune favours this century’s 500

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