A Nobel effort?

So the changes to Research Council grant application forms made it the front page of THE magazine (and features in a leader article). Or at least the reaction of a small number of senior researchers did. I can’t say I am particularly surprised by the reaction. The RCUK position is admirably set out by Phillip Esler in the article, and here I am setting down some personal views.

A major argument in a letter to the THE criticising the RCUK policy changes is that there has been a decline in the number of Nobel prizes awarded to British scientists, and, the letter argues, this is related to increased regulation of research. While the fall of in numbers of Nobel prizes is a matter of record, does the argument hold water? I think not, for the following reasons:

  • There are numerous other factors that will have a strong influence on the number of Nobel prizes, not least of which is the level of research funding. And is is important to remember that there is a considerable lag between when research is done, and the award of a Nobel prize. So the decline in the 80s and 90s could partly reflect previous underinvestment in research funding which has been reversed in the last decade.
  • The number of Nobel prizes is fixed, so when the number of UK winners goes down then the number in the rest of the world goes up. Part of the explanation could be a rising standard of research elsewhere rather than a decline in the UK.
  • It is also the case that the number of Nobel prize winners is small so will be strongly susceptible to random fluctuations. Of particular note is the fact that Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously. So however great your scientific discovery if you are unlucky enough to die before it is recognised, there will be no Nobel prize. And if the UK has been unlucky in this regard it could (again partly) explain fluctuations.

Even if you buy into the idea that the reduction in the number of Nobel prizes has been caused by research policy changes in the UK, it does not follow that this is a problem. Don’t get me wrong, Nobel prizes are great and are, in some sense, indicators of excellent research. But they are the tip of a very big iceberg, and would we really want a research policy that maximised the number of Nobel prizes? If you want to look for indicators of the health of UK research than looking at measures that cover a wider range of activity, like bibliometrics, seems more sensible. The most recent independent report on the health of the UK research base shows a steady improvement over the last 10 year in measures like citations per researcher and citation impact. The recent outcome of the Research Assessment Exercise also paints a positive picture. Perhaps things are not as bad as some members of the research community might lead us to believe…

There is also some interesting commentary on this on the Prometheus science policy blog.