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Stranglehold on science is choking human ingenuity, says UCL professor

Publication date: Mar 13, 2006 2:19:25 PM

The greatest long-term risks for humanity will not come from weapons of mass destruction, global war, disease or famine, according to Donald Braben, visiting professor in UCL’s Department of Earth Sciences.

Instead, it will come from the rising tide of bureaucracy and control which is strangling human ingenuity, he argues in the book, ‘Pioneering research: a risk worth taking’, which is published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on 6 August 2004.

Citing global trends and attitudes that currently threaten the adventurous scientific spirit, Professor Braben suggests that a radical overhaul of the system that directs academic research is needed to maintain originality and freedom of expression.

Professor Braben, who is also Chief Executive of Venture Research International Ltd, says:

“Until the 1970s scientists who thought they had a great idea would work on it to explore its potential. But that’s not possible today. Researchers must now convince a committee before they can do anything. Originality and pioneering research are discouraged because committees struggle to be imaginative. There are more scientists today than ever before, but they concentrate on refining existing knowledge.

“The main problem is that peer review, the bureaucratic god of science without whose blessing research cannot be funded, has been deemed infallible. That’s not too bad in the mainstream where everyone more or less agrees what the most important problems are. Pioneers, however, rarely agree with anyone and this rare breed are now wrestling to scrape enough funds together to test their ideas.

“In industry, almost every major company is now concentrating on its core business. Exploratory research has been virtually eliminated. As a result new technologies are derivative on generic discoveries made decades ago. We are living off the seed corn. We must find ways of restoring freedom to those rare scientists who need it, and focus on identifying the next Einsteins.”

Backed by an international group of 39 scientists that include Nobel Laureates, Fellows of the Royal Society and US National Academicians, Professor Braben argues it is necessary to derive new selection methods for research that focus on people rather than projects or fields.

Through the course of ‘Pioneering research: a risk worth taking’, Professor Braben addresses this issue by considering:

* The critical role of dissent in human progression

* Universal arrangements created over the past 20 years that stifle originality in research

* The potential impact of these relatively recent changes on the prospects for economic growth

* The Venture Research project, an initiative created to restore tolerance of scientific dissent to its former levels

The briefing will be held at the Science Media Centre, but is not an SMC science briefing. Address: Science Media Centre, the Royal Institution, 21 Albemarle Street, London, W1S 4BS.

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