Three good scientists are turned down by a public funding body because of their novel approach
Click to follow
The Independent Online
LET ME tell you the story of three friends. All are colleagues, in fact all are neuroscientists. They don't know each other very well, and indeed work in very different areas. One is in his late thirties, and, because we are in the same home town, I see him fairly often and enjoy talking to him on a whole range of issues, not just the nuts and bolts of brain function, but also the really big questions, such as how the brain might generate consciousness. I have heard people call him variously "brilliant" or that rare scientific accolade, "a deep thinker".

The second friend is in her late 40s: like many women in science she has overcome more hurdles than many, but has held together, with enormous strength of character through difficult times to do truly exciting, ground- breaking research that has been described as "ahead of its time".

Finally there's one of my closest friends who has, for many years, served as a mentor and is in his late 50s. Over the years we have had many exciting discussions, not least because he is one of the most broadly-informed scientists that I know. In recent years he has taken to using the different branches of science with which he is familiar to develop a truly multi- disciplinary, novel approach.

What have all these three got in common, apart from knowing me?

Well, they are all good scientists in the sense that they fulfil very easily the requisite criteria of an impressive publication record in peer- review journals. They also have a healthy track record of public sector funding.

Sadly, however, recently they were all also turned down flat by the same public funding body. My own view is that this was because of the final issue that they clearly all have in common - they are all highly novel in the way they approach some of the most exciting problems of the brain.

I have railed in the past against the iniquities of, not so much peer review, but judgements passed by funding bodies in the anonymity of "in camera" discussions, fuelled by the risk-averse mentality of most committees. But the point I wish to make here, is on a brighter note.

Thank heavens for the recent launch of Nesta (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). Set against conventional public sector funding bodies, Nesta is a bantam weight. But it stands for all the qualities displayed by my friends, clearly not appreciated by the more establishment institutions. Novelty, multi-disciplinary, and perhaps an inevitable result of these two - creativity.

Headed by Lord David Putnam, Nesta, as far as I understand, is out to help fund projects and people that other Government-sponsored agencies do not reach. I was enormously honoured and delighted to help launch Nesta a week or so ago, with David Putnam and Jude Kelly, artistic director of West Yorkshire Playhouse. And to discuss some of the areas on which Nesta intends to focus. It emerged very quickly one of the most urgent goals is to encourage creativity at all levels, perhaps encouraging scientists to transcend their disciplines and so maximise the chance of the true paradigm shift - and even possible projects with those in the arts. And such bold initiatives will not be confined to lofty professional folk, but will extend all the way through the eduction system to schools. The idea is to help gifted children who, perhaps, may feel alienated as they don't conform to the establishment. I personally was delighted to see also high on the list, the public understanding of science, which, if anything does, meshes education, and creative thinking with social need.

At last there might be the chance of uniting the disparate interests of the three ministries involved in science: it's always seemed strange to me that scientific research comes under the Department of Trade and Industry; science education under Education and Employment, while public understanding of science seems to be the province of Culture, Art and Sport. The word, science is not in titles of any of these three ministries.

Perhaps Nesta, which to its credit has science in the title and embraces the three main strands, will be able to address some of the needs of meshing science with society in a general way, but also in helping to develop the true potential of the individual. Of course, I am already a convert, since I hope that we will be able to echo these laudable aims at the Royal Institution by providing house room for anyone thinking along these same lines.

Let us hope that we are looking at the start of a sea change for bringing back science from the bureaucratic bean-counting and safe exercise it seems to have become, to an endeavour that above all generates fun and a sense of genuine curiosity.

The writer is professor of pharmacology at Oxford university and a director of the Royal Institution