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Today's Funding System Is Preventing Nobel-Worthy Discoveries

A group of leading scientists say today's funding process leaves no room for big ideas.
June 3, 2014, 2:36pm

Image: Flickr/Adam Baker

Most scientific research is done in increments; small steps taken to get from one place to another not too far away. But sometimes, along comes a solitary Big Idea, an approach completely different from everything that came before it: a disruptive discovery that changes the whole game.

These are the kind of groundbreaking ideas that get awarded the Nobel Prize. But the potential to discover them is being thwarted by today’s funding system, according to a group of leading scientists writing in British newspaper the Telegraph.

Led by Donald Braben, a professor of Earth Sciences at University College London, 30 scientists in various fields, including a few Nobel laureates, signed a letter alleging that owing to contemporary funding mechanisms, “support for research that might lead to major new scientific discoveries is virtually forbidden nowadays, and science is in serious danger of stagnating.”

The target of their dissatisfaction is the “peer preview” system used by many funding institutions, whereby researchers submit their funding proposals to a group of peers who judge whether or not it’s suitable for a share of the funding pot. That then plays a huge role in whether the research gets funded. It’s like peer review (which has recently come in for some stick itself), but before the research has even been done.

Speaking on the phone, Braben told me that the peer preview system has been adopted in many places across the world since the 70s and 80s. He’s written a book that explores the conditions that were necessary for big discoveries like Max Planck’s work in quantum theory.

“Peer preview works most of the time, it works very well, but it has a serious flaw in that it cannot accommodate dissent; it cannot accommodate people who want to do things which nobody else thinks is important,” Braben said, and argued, “That’s the whole point about research—you’re not supposed to know what the answer is.”

He wants to see funding mechanisms relaxed around areas that might lead to these kind of great discoveries. At UCL, he leads the selection team for a fellowship granted to “researchers whose ideas challenge the norm and have the potential substantially to change the way we think about an important subject.”

Braben recalled a past when institutions would have a modest amount of funding that researchers could use as they pleased, without jumping through the hoops required by many schemes today. At the margins of breakthrough discoveries, he said, “people need freedom from all the rules and regulations, the form-filling they have to do nowadays.”

In 2011, he gave evidence to the government in which he set forth the idea of a similar national funding initiative of around £10-£15 million ($16-$25 million) for this kind of funding, and suggested that this would contribute to economic growth owing to the high value of the ideas that make it.

“It’s particularly important in the UK because we used to be very good at this kind of research. Per capita, we won more Nobel Prizes than anybody—even the Americans,” he told me. “But now it is universal; it is all over the world that people need permission to do the research, and that is just killing the research enterprise.”