When peers hold the purse strings

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The Independent Culture
Regular readers of this column might be wondering why there is such frequent harping about funding - or rather the lack of it - for scientific research. Undeterred, I am spurred on to yet another bout by a daring and constructive article from David Horrobin in a recent issue of the medics' journal, the Lancet (9 November 1996). The story so far: unlike arts academics, we scientists cannot make a move in the laboratory without stratospheric sums to finance consumables, such as chemicals and re-agents, and equipment. On top of that is the burden of salary: either you need to add on the costs of paying yourself an adequate wage as a full-time researcher in the perilous position of being "on soft money", or you have to drum it up for someone else because of the teaching and administrative loads that go with university tenure. Where do you turn?

The most obvious first stop is the research councils and charities. And herein lies the problem, at least if the research you propose has not already been carried out, or if you are suggesting a tack that is not merely a variation on an established theme. The collective horror of reviewing panels for any proposal that is out of the ordinary is evidenced by the recent introduction of a scheme by a leading charity for a special grant earmarked for research that is "novel, adventurous and speculative". Does that mean that the bulk of research funded in the usual way has none of these qualities?

For the most part, the research that gets the thumbs-up of the public- sector funding bodies is not so much bad but mediocre and me-too, and it was this that drove Horrobin into print. His article was remarkable not only because it articulated, as do an increasing number of us, the problems with the current "peer review" system of grant applications, but because he offered a solution.

Under the current system, 20 or so of our scientific colleagues, our peers, are convened as a committee. With the exception of one charity, the grass-roots scientist has no say in who the peers will be. These covertly selected peers (who to my mind could have been more fairly chosen on some sort of buggins-turn rota) then decide the allocation of funds from a precious and ever-diminishing pool of cash. This central kitty can be as little as 5 per cent of the potential moneys applied for. These all- important, final decisions are based on the views of several "expert" referees' reports. An obvious problem here is that the experts are as likely as not to be competitors of the applicant, and assuming they suffer from the frailties of human nature, might be less than even-handed. A further worry is that in any event, the peer-panel members could exaggerate or underplay the reports according to their own bias, whilst luxuriating in the lack of accountability and anonymity of operating in camera.

But even in a superhuman, perfect world, decisions taken in this way by an effective scientific soviet, as Horrobin points out, will in any event stifle innovation in the inevitable tendency to meet on the most common ground, the middle. Although such a system might have debatable advantages for governments, for running businesses or for organising fetes, it does not lend itself to supporting original research where there should be joy, or at least the most chance of eventual success, in diversity. After all, if the problem to be tackled is truly fundamental, then the more varied the approaches, the greater the chance of at least one succeeding. If, horror of horrors, an unexpected result emerges or a hypothesis fails, then that could prompt a new line of inquiry.

Horrobin's means of defusing the fear of such a "risk", and thereby allowing innovative research to flourish, is quite simply to abolish the cumbersome scheme of peer review and peer panels. Instead he proposes a system that was effectively in operation in Britain from 1925 to 1960 when medical advances , at least, were arguably greater than they are now.

Quite simply, the idea would be to divvy up the money available from the government to give each academic an equal share. Horrobin's calculation is that each individual would then have some pounds 55,000 per annum. If you needed a fancy and expensive piece of equipment, then you could team up with colleagues to buy and share it collectively. So long as you showed you were productive by a steady publication record, then the scheme would enable you to offer technicians or post-doctoral assistants a reasonable degree of security. Moreover, freed from weeks of grant-applying, which Horrobin reckons can take up to 50 per cent of one's time, you would now have a working culture far more conducive to thinking up exciting, new ways of tackling the problem at hand. Which is what being a scientist should be all about.

! Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, and Gresham Professor of Physic, London