Venture research and diversity

Earlier this month, I attended a discussion event organised by UCL's public policy unit on the idea of 'Venture Research'. This notion has been developed and operated by Professor Don Braben. With sponsorship from BP, a scheme was run in the 1980s, and now there is a similar, smaller scale, initiative operated within UCL.

The aim of the venture research approach is to tackle a perceived research policy issue: the idea that peer review, especially of research proposals, stiffles creativity and the solution is to give able scientists resources and let them follow their curiosity with limited or no constraints. If we don't do this, argue Braben and his supporters, we are unlikely to see a continuation of the major scientific breakthroughs of the 20th Century.

I have written about Braben's ideas before. I think they are based on a particular reading of history, and ignore the fact that there are mechanisms that allow all sorts of researchers to follow all sorts of ideas. I suspect there is a place for something like the venture research fund in the range of funding approaches, although it would be problematic for anything more than a fraction of funding to be distributed in this way. I wasn't clear from the event whether Braben and his supporters would like to see all or just a small proportion of public funding allocated by a venture-research mechanism.

While the principles behind the venture research fund are sensible as long as the scale is kept appropriate, there are considerable challenges in implementation. Whatever the scale, a fund like this will need to be selective, so how are researchers selected to benefit? In the case of the original venture research fund, selection was made on the basis of a very short proposal, and an interview. The selection was made by Braben and two other people. This approach raises considerable concerns from a diversity perspective. Selection by small groups of people from a non-anonymised applicant pool is extremely likely to introduce selection biases against certain groups. These biases can be conscious or unconscious.

I asked a question about this at the event. While this point applies to all under-represented groups, to make my question simple I asked about the gender make-up of the selection panel of three, and of the 26 successful applicants to the original venture fund. Rather shockingly, Braben would not answer the question! So I have done a little digging… I can't find the identity of the other two members of the selection panel, or a full list of the successful applicants. But there is a list of those funded by the venture fund who have made (in Braben's view) significant breakthroughs. The 13 'transformational discoveries' listed refer to 26 researchers. I can only find two female names on the list, both involved with the same discovery.

In the absence of any positive evidence, and much to be concerned about, I conclude that the selection approach for the original venture fund is likely to accentuate the already significant biases against women, people from non-white ethnic group and people with disabilities. The detailed process for the more recent UCL version of the fund isn't clear. As far as I can see only one award has been made under the scheme so far, so it is a little early to draw any conclusions.

Interestingly, Iain Foulkes from Cancer Research UK, who also spoke at the event, mentioned their plans to introduce a 'Pioneer Research' scheme not dissimilar to venture research. CRUK plan to anonymise applications to this scheme, which will go some way to addressing these issues. With this plan they will not be able to have the interview stage, which Braben suggests is an essential part of his process.

UK research already performs exceptionally well, and I don't see evidence of a lack of creativity among our researchers. The problem that UK research does have is its lack of diversity. Imagine how much better we could be if we were able to exploit the full talent base of the groups that are currently under-represented within research? And to benefit from the different approaches and ways of thinking that these groups would bring? Solving the diversity issue in research is the real priority.