Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 56

Submission from Dr Martin Dominik

  In general, it makes a lot of sense to focus on the strengths rather than on the weaknesses. However, would it be of greater importance to discuss strengths of specific research sectors, or of the general approach to science funding? I would like to argue in favour of the latter, making the point that the implementation of procedures to achieve excellence should be our main priority, regardless of research area.

As a Royal Society University Research Fellow, currently working on the detection of planets orbiting stars other than the Sun, I am regularly given the frustrating experience that we are not making efficient use of one of our most valuable strengths: people and their creativity. In fact, I would judge this to be the crucial resource for making the difference in an international competitive arena over the coming decades. If we manage to set the right environment conditions to allow the existing creative potential to unfold, it would give us an unparalleled competitive advantage, by far outweighing any other possible measure taken.

  Maximizing impact of science on our society, both on its culture and its economy, seems to be a promising strategy, while focussing on immediate economic returns will come short of efficiently advancing our society and aiming at largest benefits. The largest innovation potential is with fundamental research, whose outcome, by its nature, cannot be predicted. Curiosity has been proven to be a major driver of innovation, and we need to ensure that scientists who come up with groundbreaking ideas are given the opportunity to futher develop and realize these. Most strikingly, we lack of suitable procedures to identify future innovators, which would need to involve a proper assessment of the quality and innovation potential of their work. In my opinion, the Royal Society University Research Fellowship programme is a rare gem within the funding landscape, doing a good job on selecting researchers with a large potential to contribute to the benefit of our society and investing into people rather than projects. If, at the other extreme, for a research project to be funded, a proven concept and a long track-record are required (which in particular disfavours young talent), we can only be average, but will never achieve excellence. Big successes will only arise if we are willing to take some risk, the more predictable a research project is, the smaller its gain.

  I am seriously concerned about procedures where priorities on research activities are set by scientists, which thereby become judges on their own case and sometimes even write part of the legislation. Self-appraisal schemes such as citation counts are unsuitable to measure the impact of scientific work on society, because the value to all of us is the determining factor rather than the relevance for a small group of specialists. I think that one needs to accept that science is an integral part of our society, and does not form a separate world with its own rules. Applied research fits into a market model with consumer demand for new or advanced products. When it comes to basic research however, one usually neglects the "consumer". Given that the genuine role of a scientist is to increase the knowledge of the society rather than just his/her own, why should one refuse to listen to the wider public? If society would not accept the fact that fundamental research, following our curiosity, is beneficial, there would not be any public-sector funding at all. Are we not facing a democracy problem by thinking that members of the general public are not qualified to have a say on science issues? Where would this country be if we decided to adopt such policies in general? In fact, I found the unbiased judgement of "laymen" frequently being better than that of experts, some of who just speak in favour of their personal interests rather than the common good.

  I therefore arrive at the conclusion that a transparent public dialogue about the investment in science and innovation would be most likely to arrive at a result that is most beneficial to society. In contrast, discussions behind closed doors are more likely to serve the interests of those immediately involved at the cost of others (which might even include communities officially "represented").

April 2009

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