Here’s my latest Critical Scientist column in the Guardian, published today. It now seems that this back page of the Saturday issue is going to be reshuffled for various reasons, so it isn’t clear what the column’s fate will be in the New Year. Enjoy/criticize/excoriate it while you can.
The kind of idle pastime that might amuse physicists is to imagine drafting Einstein’s grant applications in 1905. “I propose to investigate the idea that light travels in little bits”, one might say. “I will explore the possibility that time slows down as things speed up” goes another. Imagine what comments those would have elicited from reviewers for the German Science Funding Agency, had such a thing existed. Instead, Einstein just did the work anyway while drawing his wages as a Technical Expert Third Class at the Bern Patent Office. And that’s how he invented quantum physics and relativity.
The moral seems to be that really innovative ideas don’t get funded – indeed, that the system is set up to exclude them. To wring research money from government agencies, you have to write a proposal that gets assessed by anonymous experts (“peer reviewers”). If its ambitions are too grand or its ideas too unconventional, there’s a strong chance it’ll be trashed. So does the money go only to only ‘safe’ proposals that plod down well-trodden avenues, timidly advancing the frontiers of knowledge a few nanometres?
There’s some truth in the accusation that grant mechanisms favour mediocrity. After all, your proposal has to specify exactly what you’re going to achieve. But how can you know the results before you’ve done the experiments, unless you’re aiming to prove the bleeding obvious?
To address this complaint, the US National Science Foundation has recently announced a new scheme for awarding grants. From next year – if Congress approves – the Creative Research Awards for Transformative Interdisciplinary Ventures (CREATIV – oh, I get it) will have $24 million to give to “unusually creative high-risk/high-reward interdisciplinary proposals.” In other words, it’s looking for really new ideas that might not work, but which would be massive if they do.
As science funding goes, $24m is peanuts – the total NSF pot is $5.5 bn. And each application is limited to $1m. But this is just a pilot project; more might follow. The real point is that CREATIV has been created at all, because it could be interpreted as an admission of NSF’s failure to support innovation previously. Needless to say, that’s not how NSF would see it. They would argue that the usual funding mechanisms have blind spots, especially when it comes to supporting research that crosses disciplinary boundaries.
This is a notorious problem. Talking up the importance of “interdisciplinarity” is all the rage, but most funds are still marshaled into conventional boundaries – medicine, say, or particle physics – so that if you have an idea for how to apply particle physics to medicine, each agency directs your grant request to the other one.
The problem is all the worse if you want to tackle a really big problem. To make a new drug you need chemists; to tackle Africa’s AIDS epidemic you will require not only drugs but the expertise of epidemiologists, sociologists, virologists and much else. The buzzword for really big solutions and technologies is “transformative” – the Internet is transformative, Viagra is not. This big-picture thinking is in vogue; the European Commission’s Future Emerging Technologies programme is promising to award €1 bn (now you’re talking) next year for transformational projects under the so-called Flagship Initiative.
Are schemes like CREATIV the way forward? Because the funding will be allocated by individual project managers rather than risking the conservatism of review panels, it could fall prey to cronyism. And who’s to say that those project managers will be any more broad-minded or perceptive? In the end, it’s a Gordian knot: only experts can properly assess proposals, but by definition their vision tends to be narrow. It’s good that CREATIV acknowledges the problem, but it remains to be seen if it’s a solution. Like movie-making or publishing, it’ll need to accept that there will be some duds. It’s a shame there aren’t more scientific problems that can be solved with pen, paper, and a patent clerk’s pay packet.