Great comment in the Guardian from as ever the irrepressible Ross Anderson  on an article by Athene Donald. Reality is in the first sentence. [link for this post]7

There’s only one way to do great science, and that’s to hire the brightest people you can find and let them do whatever turns them on. That’s how Bell Labs operated, and it’s how universities like Cambridge used to operate (and still try to). Smart firms like Microsoft and Google try to emulate it in their own research operations.

The UK is screwing up because of increasing micromanagement; because ministers like to stand up and make “announcements”. So Osborne wants a big research centre near Manchester? This is surely unconnected with the fact that he’s an MP for Cheshire; and of course no-one would be so crass as to suggest that Willetts gave Oxford £20m for research in quantum computing because he’s an alumnus. However, as Athene says, the mechanisms used to distribute the research budget should have the confidence of academics. Walport doesn’t.

Were I the legislator, I’d shift some of the funding from places to people. Every year, the thousand research students who produced the best theses would get five years’ postdoctoral funding to go and do their research wherever they wanted. They’d vote with their feet, and ministers would see pretty quickly whether Oxford or Manchester was hot or not.

At present, the Royal Society awards less than 100 junior research fellowships a year, which let lucky young scientists do just that. The EU adds a few more Marie Curie fellowships. These young postdocs are among the most productive we have, because they’re doing what interests them, and they’re much better placed to judge what’s a good investment of effort than decrepit old senior professors (let alone ministers). What’s needed is to scale this up. At steady state, 5000 postdocs at £35k each plus the same again for overheads would be £350m a year or 7.5% of the science budget. What’s more I’d expand it into the arts, humanities and social sciences too.

This would force vice-chancellors to focus on providing an environment in which people can do great research, rather than sucking up to ministers and lobbying for more pork. This should be the natural drift of policy for conservative or liberal ministers, as it would align incentives somewhat better than at present.

I find Anderson disturbing — not because he is wrong— but because he is right about so many things.

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