Source: LSE, Sep 2017
Today, academics must prepare written proposals describing the research they wish to conduct and submit them to funding agencies for evaluation – a process known as peer review.
According to Don Braben and Rod Dowler, the current peer review process actually serves as a blocker to more radical research, stifling creativity and limiting opportunities for game-changing discoveries. Obviously peer review should not be abandoned entirely, but it is time to recognise the need for a separate category of highly innovative research with appropriate funding.
Einstein’s theory of relativity was criticised in 1931 in a book titled “100 authors against Einstein”. He replied that if they were right, one author would have been enough. This is an extreme example of the perils of peer review when dealing with brilliant researchers at the cutting edge of science. It is of vital importance right now to avoid suppressing genius in favour of apparent practicality. To achieve this, we need to find a way to continue to allow for the exceptional and to produce the science seeds that blossom into economic prosperity.
Today, academics must prepare written proposals on what they want to do and submit them to funding agencies for their evaluation – a process known as peer review. There is no escape from this process, which can take months that would otherwise be spent on research. Funding success rates are rarely more than 25 per cent. The agencies support only excellent proposals but as a result, freedom of research has been severely curtailed.
Scientific research should be open-ended. Serious-minded researchers should be capable of noticing anomalous behaviour in a system, carefully exploring wherever it may lead and hopefully thereby making great discoveries. How can constraining them not affect their creativity?
Current policies make sense for incremental or near-market research that may well lead to the creation of new technologies based on existing fundamental theories. The casualty of such policies, however, will be hard-to-predict radical discoveries, which are the ones that offer opportunities for growth on a global scale.
Related Resource: RAND, 2014
This report is a summary of Donald Braben’s work with BP’s Venture Research Unit (VRU), a research funding initiative that ran from 1980 to 1990. It is based on Braben’s reports in his books Pioneering Research and Scientific Freedom.
The VRU provided £20 million in research funding to about 30 researchers and small teams from Europe and North America. It aimed to fund determined researchers who questioned current thinking and would do transformative work. An important driver of the VRU approach was the idea that researchers with radical ideas would struggle to obtain funding through traditional means. Trust and freedom were considered essential aspects of the approach, and the unit’s organisers sought to minimise administrative burdens. Though VRU-funded work led to several notable outcomes, similar initiatives have not been introduced on a large scale in the UK.