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Nobel laureates: don't put money before science

New rules will stifle groundbreaking research, Government told

Thousands of scientists and academics, including six Nobel laureates and a former government chief scientist, today condemn plans to change the rules on scientific funding.

The scholars are concerned that making university research more accountable to the wider economy will stifle the sort of curiosity-driven research that has led to groundbreaking discoveries and Nobel prizes.

More than 18,000 academics have signed a petition condemning the proposed changes. They include Nobel prize winners Sir Tim Hunt, Sir John Walker, Sir Harold Kroto and Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, as well as leading scientists such as Professor Richard Dawkins, Professor Steven Rose and Professor Steve Jones.

In a separate poll of nearly 600 university professors, two-thirds said that they oppose funding changes that would force 25 per cent of future research to be assessed on economic impacts rather than scientific excellence alone.

A third said they would consider moving to another country if the changes came into effect and half said that the proposals would change the way they hired or fired staff in their departments.

The changes are being orchestrated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England under a government initiative to make public funding for scientific research more relevant to the wider economy and society.

The council says the new "research excellence framework", which will replace the current research assessment exercise, aims to develop and sustain "a dynamic and internationally competitive research sector that makes a major contribution to economic prosperity, national well-being and the expansion and dissemination of knowledge".

The council said: "Significant additional recognition will be given where researchers build on excellent research to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life."

Scientists believe this additional restriction on what gets funded will suffocate the sort of blue-sky, curiosity-driven research that has produced some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in the history of British science, from the discovery of the DNA double helix to the invention of the computer protocol behind the world wide web.

"Virtually every major scientific discovery ever made would not have survived the current proposals with the emphasis on economic impact," insisted Professor Donald Braben, the honorary professor of earth sciences at University College London. Lord May of Oxford, a former government chief scientific adviser, said the proposed change to research funding was "profoundly misconceived" because it is primarily for industry and not for government to be thinking of ways of gaining economic benefit from science.

Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, said that research that was purely curiosity-driven, with no immediate practical or economic benefit in sight, often turned out to be extremely important in the long run to society and the economy.

"History shows us that in many cases it is basic research, undertaken purely out of curiosity to understand more about our world, that has delivered revolutionary breakthroughs," Dr Kirby-Harris said. "X-rays, lasers and semiconductors – technologies widely used in every aspect of our lives – all stem from discoveries made through fundamental research, undertaken without any immediate application in mind."

Sir Tim Hunt, one of six Nobel Prize winners to sign the petition, said: "The impact guidelines will discourage academics from making discoveries and will encourage people to come up with unoriginal research proposals. The whole idea of research is to find out things you didn't know before. The fruits of basic research are unpredictable and to seek to control them in this way is not in the interests of the country."

The petition was organised by the University and College Union. Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary, asked: "Where are the next generation of Albert Einsteins going to come from if we seek to control research in this way? It is wrong to try and measure projects purely on their economic potential."

25 per cent

Amount of future research that will be assessed on economic, not scientific, impact.

The signatories

Signatories to the petition include:

Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize 2001 for control of cell cycle, Cancer Research UK

Sir John Walker, Nobel Prize 1997 for energy source of cells; Cambridge University

Sir Harold Kroto, Nobel Prize 1996 for co-discovery of a form of pure carbon, Florida State University, formerly Sussex

Sir Richard Roberts, Nobel Prize 1993 for discovering discontinuous nature of certain genes, New England Biolabs

Professor Brian Josephson, Nobel Prize 1973 for discovery of "Josephson Effect" (current flow across two weakly coupled superconductors), Cambridge

Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Nobel Prize 2009 for describing structure of certain molecules associated with DNA, Cambridge

Professor Richard Dawkins, biologist, Oxford University

Professor Denis Noble, co-Director of Computational Physiology, Oxford

Professor Steven Rose, biology and neurobiology, Open University

Professor Steve Jones, head of Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University College London

Professor Don Braben, Honorary Professor, Earth Sciences, UCL

Professor John Dainton, physics, University of Liverpool

Professor Fritz Ursell, applied mathematics, University of Manchester

Sir John Ball, natural philosophy, Oxford

Sir Tony Wrigley, history, Cambridge

Dame Janet Nelson, professor of history, Kings College London