30 Scientists Call For More Challenges To ‘Prevailing Orthodoxies’

  • Date: 20/03/14
  • The Guardian

Government agencies use peer review to discourage open-ended inquiries and serious challenges to prevailing orthodoxies.

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts,” said Richard Feynman in the 1960s. But times change. Before about 1970, academics had access to modest funding they could use freely. Industry was similarly enlightened. Their results included the transistor, the maser-laser, the electronics and telecommunications revolutions, nuclear power, biotechnology and medical diagnostics galore that enriched the lives of virtually everyone; they also boosted 20th-century economic growth.

After 1970, politicians substantially expanded academic sectors. Peer review’s uses allowed the rise of priorities, impact etc, and is now virtually unavoidable. Applicants’ proposals must convince their peers that they serve national policies and are the best possible uses of resources. Success rates are about 25%, and strict rules govern resubmissions. Rejected proposals are usually lost. Industry too has lost its taste for the unpredictable. The 500 major discoveries, almost all initiated before about 1970, challenged mainstream science and would probably be vetoed today. Nowadays, fields where understanding is poor are usually neglected because researchers must convince experts that working in them will be beneficial.

However, small changes would keep science healthy. Some are outlined in Donald Braben’s book, Promoting the Planck Club: How Defiant Youth, Irreverent Researchers and Liberated Universities Can Foster Prosperity Indefinitely. But policies are deeply ingrained. Agencies claiming to support blue-skies research use peer review, of course, discouraging open-ended inquiries and serious challenges to prevailing orthodoxies. Mavericks once played an essential role in research. Indeed, their work defined the 20th century. We must relearn how to support them, and provide new options for an unforeseeable future, both social and economic. We need influential allies. Perhaps Guardian readers could help?

 

Donald W Braben University College London
John F Allen Queen Mary, University of London
William Amos University of Cambridge
Richard Ball University of Edinburgh
Tim Birkhead FRS University of Sheffield
Peter Cameron Queen Mary, University of London
Richard Cogdell FRS University of Glasgow
David Colquhoun FRS University College London
Rod Dowler Industry Forum, London
Irene Engle United States Naval Academy, Annapolis
Felipe Fernández-Armesto University of Notre Dame
Desmond Fitzgerald Materia Medica
Pat Heslop-Harrison University of Leicester
Dudley Herschbach Harvard University, Nobel Laureate
H Jeff Kimble Caltech, US National Academy of Sciences
Sir Harry Kroto FRS Florida State University, Tallahassee, Nobel Laureate
James Ladyman University of Bristol
Nick Lane University College London
Peter Lawrence FRS University of Cambridge
Angus MacIntyre FRS Queen Mary, University of London
John Mattick Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney
Beatrice Pelloni University of Reading
Martyn Poliakoff FRS University of Nottingham
Douglas Randall University of Missouri
David Ray Bio Astral Limited
Sir Richard J Roberts FRS New England Biolabs, Nobel Laureate
Ken Seddon Queen’s University of Belfast
Colin Self University of Newcastle
Harry Swinney University of Texas, US National Academy of Sciences
Claudio Vita-Finzi FBA Natural History Museum

The Guardian, 18 March 2014