The topic of ‘scientific mavericks’ is receiving some attention at the moment. There was a letter, signed by a number of Nobel laureates and FRSs among others, published this week in the Guardian suggesting that the current structures inhibit mavericks, and that this is a problem. And this follows on the heels of comments by Peter Higgs last year. The arguments in the Guardian letter are flawed in my view (there is an excellent post by Jenny Rohn that sets out why), and based on a very particular reading of history.
But the question of providing space within the research policy landscape for the exploration of radical ideas and approaches is an important one.
Of course, in the policy world we more often talk about ‘high risk/high reward’ research rather than mavericks, but the basic concept is the same. The question that is regularly debated by research policy people is how to ensure that the structures and environment we create around research don’t produce barriers that prevent researchers from trying out ‘crazy ideas’. In thinking about how to tackle this question there are a number of challenges. A big one is that we don’t actually know how much ‘high risk/high reward’ research is going on. As Jenny indicates in her post, researchers find ways to do this type of work, and, by definition, most of it will fail, so we will never hear about it. The successful projects – the extraordinary findings supported by extraordinary evidence – can potentially look very mainstream quite quickly, so the visibility of successful ‘high risk/high reward’ research can be low too. In the absence of good evidence on the volume of activity it’s hard to know whether the current policy environment is really encouraging or inhibiting.
By far the biggest challenge in formulating policy for ‘high risk/high reward’ research, however, is deciding how much research of this type is needed. I think there definitely should be space for some, but it is also self-evident that we don’t want all research to be like this. That would result in too much public money being spent on research that leads nowhere, not even advancing its discipline, let alone bringing wider benefits to society. As in many areas of research policy, we need to find the appropriate balance point.
Part of the responsibility for addressing this issue lies with researchers and universities themselves. Through the UK’s dual funding system, universities have access to funding, provided by HEFCE and the other UK funding bodies, that could be used to support ‘high risk/high reward’ research. Whether the block grant funding is used in this way, and, if it isn’t, why not, are interesting questions worth exploring. It is the case that researchers and universities are themselves well placed to decide how much ‘high risk/high reward’ research should take place. Perhaps increasing the proportion of research funding that is distributed through this route might shift the balance, and a allow a few more mavericks to be nurtured?