The 7 UK Research Councils are publicly-funded agencies responsible for the funding of most research in the UK. They have often been criticised for being much too “establishment” driven such that any line of research considered heretical is strangled of any funding. Donald W. Braben is honorary professor in the department of earth sciences, University College London and known for his support for academic freedom and “blue-skies” research. In an article in The Times Higher Education Supplement, he comes down hard against the research councils and their use of “peer review”. He argues that they inherently discourage any “pioneering” research and drive towards mediocrity.
Until about 1970, academic researchers were usually given modest funds to use as they pleased. This apparent profligacy led to a prodigious harvest of unpredicted discoveries and huge stimulants to economic growth. …….
It is said that peer review is like democracy: it’s not the best but it’s the best we know. But science is not democratic. One doubtful scientist can be right while 100 convinced colleagues can be wrong. Indeed, the physicist Richard Feynman once defined science as “the belief in the ignorance of experts”. Specifically, peer review of grant applications, or peer “preview”, is inimical to radically new ideas. Today, however, the all-powerful peer-preview bureaucracy is the determinant of excellence. It is taboo even to criticise it. So the natural inclination to oppose major challenges to the status quo has become institutionalised. For radical research, one can argue that “the best we know” has become the worst.
“Independent expert peer review” is contradictory. One submits a proposal and the councils ask experts to assess it. But these experts are likely to include proposers’ closest competitors, even if they are selected internationally, because science is global – and real pioneers have no peers, of course. How then can the councils ensure that reviews are independent? To make matters worse, these experts can pass judgement anonymously: applicants don’t know who put the boot in.
I suggest that the misuse of peer review is at the heart of the research councils’ problems. Before about 1970, they largely restricted its use to the assessment of applications for large grants or expensive equipment. Scientific leaders protected the seed corn, ensuring that young scientists could launch radical challenges if they were sufficiently inspired, dedicated and determined. Today, the experts whose ignorance they would challenge might also influence their chances of funding. ………
….. The research councils are taking UK research down pathways to mediocrity and using peer review as justification. We – the academic community – must stop them, or accept the dire consequences.
Read the whole article