Against The Grain: 'The brightest scientists need big incentives'

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The Independent Online

Dr Bruce Charlton is reader in evolutionary psychiatry at Newcastle University. He argues that the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are no longer producing enough revolutionary scientific research, and thus their international reputations will inevitably deteriorate

Just a few decades ago, Oxford and Cambridge were regularly producing Nobel Prize-winners. They used to be world-class centres for generating scientific breakthroughs. Not any more. Cambridge has had just two Nobels in the past 21 years, a total beaten by 16 American universities. And Oxford hasn't won a prize since 1973.

For the first three-quarters of the 20th century, Britain specialised in making major scientific breakthroughs. We were the second biggest Nobel Prize-winning nation after the US, and it's sad to see how fast this has collapsed. Now the best scientists must emigrate to fulfil their potential. More than half of the most influential British-born scientists are working abroad. In the past 20 years, five British scientists have won Nobel Prizes working in the US, but in 60 years, there hasn't been a single American who has come to Britain and done the same. It's a one-way street.

Revolutionary science is always risky, but in the modern environment, British scientists are not allowed to fail. If you take a long-term view and aim to do the best possible science, but it doesn't work immediately, this is regarded as a disgrace. Yet even if you do succeed against the odds, the reward in salaries, jobs, power and status is no better than if you had just produced a mass of solid, ordinary, predictable science. At the moment, there's absolutely no incentive to be ambitious at the highest level.

I believe we need to create a system in which the brightest young scientists have a strong incentive to do top-notch research. The major science funding bodies should be offering mega cash prizes – tens of millions of pounds – specifically for revolutionary scientists. If a big idea comes off, the discoverer could become fabulously rich at a stroke.

Britain has diminished to a highly productive scientific factory for generating large quantities of very good, useful, but ordinary science. We take breakthroughs from the US and build on them, step-by-step, but we no longer make many breakthroughs ourselves. Oxford and Cambridge are excellent at training young scientists in their early years, but they do not provide an environment for first-class work. Oxbridge takes the cream of British talent, then channels it into the safe and second rate.

In the past 100 years, the top European universities inBerlin, Heidelberg and Paris have declined catastrophically - often in a short space of time. Unless they soon begin to do a lot more revolutionary science, Oxford and Cambridge will share their fate.

The writer is editor-in-chief of 'Medical Hypotheses', a monthly journal published by Elsevier

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