O'Really?

January 20, 2009

Donald Braben on Scientific Freedom

The Elixir of Civilization?Donald Braben was in Manchester last week, to give a seminar on scientific freedom, here is the abstract of his talk:

Every major scientific discovery came unexpectedly out of the blue.  Until a few decades ago, creative researchers were free to explore. The unpredicted harvest was prodigious. Nowadays, academic research is subject to unprecedented levels of control.  Consensus rules.  In industry, companies focus on “core business“, and severely restrict the range of their research.  Consequently, caution is encouraged everywhere, and highly original research is curtailed.  As a result, there has been a dearth of major new scientific discoveries in recent years.  The significance of the problems and their possible solutions will be discussed.

So who is Donald Braben? Don has held a senior position at the Cabinet Office in Whitehall, and a has a visiting Professorship at University College London (UCL) . He has written two books [3,5], going against the currently prevalent views on science funding. To overcome the problem of the lack of scientific freedom, Braben proposes the creation of a twenty first century “Planck Club”, (named after some bloke called Max Planck). The Planck Club consists of an elite group of the very best scientists who are completely free to explore their ideas without submitting their project proposals to peer review (what Don calls “peer preview”).

Most of the audience were sympathetic to what Don had to say, and his talk provoked an extended discussion about the best way to fund the best Science. All this reminds me of the Skunk Works projects and the infamous “20% time” given to engineers at Google – freedom in Science (and engineering) really matters, but it isn’t always so easy to decide who deserves it and why. Thanks to Don for an entertaining and thought-provoking seminar, and thanks to Paul Popelier for organising it.

If this kind of stuff interests you, take a look at the references below.

References

  1. Peter Augsdorfer (2008). Book review: Scientific freedom ChemBioChem 9 (17), 2889-2890. DOI:10.1002/cbic.200800670 “The real value of the book is that it shows that unconstrained funding can really work and it tells us how.”
  2. Tim Birkhead (2008). In praise of fishing trips: The tyranny of ‘the hypothesis’ has made science too timid Times Higher Education 2008-07-31
  3. Donald Braben (1994) To Be A Scientist: The spirit of adventure in science and technology, Oxford University Press, isbn:0198522908
  4. Donald Braben (2007). UK Science must not roll over and play dead Times Higher Education 2007-12-07
  5. Donald Braben (2008). Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilisation, Wiley, isbn:0470226544
  6. Donald Braben (2008). Why peer review thwarts innovation New Scientist 2644, 2008-02-23,
  7. Donald Braben (2008). Shoot for the blue skies: The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) constrains academics Times Higher Education 2008-12-22
  8. Zoe Corbyn (2008). Kill peer-review, save civilisation. Times Higher Education 2008-04-17
  9. Tom Feilden (2008). Searching for Einsteins: Is Science stagnating? BBC blogs (and Radio 4 Today programme) 2008-12-11
  10. Krebs and Braben (2009). Don Braben and John Krebs discuss is funding for scientists is under threat Today programme 2009-02-27
  11. Mark Gilbert (2009). Being judged is hard, not being judged is worse Times Higher Education 2009-01-15
  12. Douglas Kell (2009). Scientific Freedom at the UK Research Councils BBSRC blogs 2009-01-05
  13. KFC (2009). How Google’s PageRank predicts Nobel Prize winners arxivblog.com, the physics arXiv blog 2009-01-21
  14. Michael Nielsen (2008). Three myths about peer review michaelnielsen.org 2009-01-08

2 Comments »

  1. I think that part of the blame for this lack of freedom is the institutionalisation of science. Now every major serious government HAS to be scientifically developed; science is not a hobby, but a quest for power and money in many cases. It seems that idealistic values that inspired people like Darwin or Newton are passe and relegated to a few. I suppose this is in part the price to pay to comoditise science for the masses.

    It is not clear yet what the place for science should be in relation to our society. Some people think it is going to become more important with time. In any case, those of us scientists should not forget its humble beginnings and noble ideals, and to do all we can to keep them and pass on to the next generation of scientists.

    Comment by manuelcorpas — January 29, 2009 @ 11:15 pm | Reply

  2. I agree science is more institutionalised, but I suspect it’s less to do with caution than the physical requirements of such research. Amazing projects like the search for Higgs Boson are always going to require massive backing and will inevitably be institutionalised to some extent. I suspect that there is passionate idealism at the core of projects like this too. Is thise science being turned into a commodity, I don’t think so.

    The noble ideals still exist, maybe the game has changed slightly, economics simply has to play a part in any major research nowadays.

    Comment by anonymous jim — August 2, 2009 @ 3:38 pm | Reply


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