Research needs more poetry, not more cash

‘Big money’ grants foster ‘bookkeeping’ work at the expense of small-scale but potentially groundbreaking efforts, says Gary Thomas

Source: Elly Walton

The view that important science can no longer be done in a shed is contradicted by hugely significant insights resting on little more than string and sealing wax

Dwight D. Eisenhower took up a good proportion of his farewell address to the American nation in 1961 worrying about universities. The departing president said that the university was “historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery”. His big regret, however, was that money, not discovery, had become the principal target for staff at universities. A government contract had become “a substitute for intellectual curiosity”.

In the same year, Alvin Weinberg, who was then director of one of the US national laboratories, concurred. He said in a celebrated paper in Science that “one sees evidence of scientists spending money instead of thought. This is one of the most insidious effects of large-scale support of science.”

But the warnings were not heeded: indeed, the problem they identified is now worse than ever. It has now reached the point where the money on scholars’ CVs is more important than the substance of their work. One hears of early career scholars who, irrespective of the brilliance of their insights, fail to progress because they haven’t “brought in the income”.

The relentless drive for money exists partly, of course, because of the metrics of corporatisation: all universities crave improved bottom lines. But there are two important corollaries of this fact of life. The first is that for ambitious young researchers it’s better for their career – and easier – to chase money than to come up with striking new ideas. The second is that research of a particular kind and quality is endorsed and promoted.

The mantra that “important science can no longer be done in the back shed” keeps being contradicted by enormously significant insights that have rested on little more than the legendary string and sealing wax. The latest refutation comes from the discovery of the single-atom-thick substance graphene using Sellotape and pencil-lead, which won Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

But the confidence in big money persists – and not just in the natural sciences. Social science, with its irrepressible physics-envy, is subject to the same syndrome. Often, in unashamed displays of willy-waving, its funders boast of their “large grants” programmes, obliging proposals that demand the expenditure of seven-figure figures. The Economic and Social Research Council, for example, currently advertises a competition for applications ranging from £2 million to £10 million. The subject seems to be less important than the expenditure of a huge amount of money. Are these worth the money? I personally struggle to think of significant advances to have emerged from such highly funded research in the social sciences.

It would be better to spread the millions spent on these large grant ventures among small, innovative projects. In education, for instance, one big randomised controlled trial could fund a thousand classroom-based research projects. The Department for Education used to fund teachers to research their own practice under its excellent Best Practice Research Scholarships programme, but this competed poorly for media attention with the big, glossy, “what works” stuff and was pulled after just three years.

Allegiance to the idea that big is best arises not just out of corporatisation and empire-building. It stems also from a failure to distinguish between two very different kinds of science, which Nobel prizewinning biologist Sir Peter Medawar described as “poetic” and “bookkeeping”. The poetic work, depending on insight and imagination, is at the heart of scientific advance. But its fluidity simply doesn’t map on to the form of the standard research proposal, let alone the kind that demands the spending of shedloads of money. (What might the proposal for the discovery of graphene have looked like?)

Sir Peter’s bookkeeping science, by contrast, is expensive. It lies in the grinding refinement, clarification and confirmation of findings. Its ability to dish up outcomes and to specify methods lends itself admirably to the machinery of the traditional grant proposal and its assessment, and it ties in perfectly with the government’s impact agenda.

Both kinds of work – poetic and bookkeeping – are essential, of course, but an emphasis on money pushes researchers towards the latter. Nobel prizewinners’ stories are often quite similar, detailing how they have had to be extraordinarily determined and resilient to obtain the necessary time and funding to make their poetic breakthroughs, even requiring them to lie and cheat about the kind of research they were doing.

But the offer of ever-larger grants by funders only encourages universities to put yet more emphasis on – in that awful phrase – income generation. The risk is that before long the Nobel committees will have only bookkeepers to choose from. And we will all be the poorer for that.

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