The damaging bureaucracy of academic peer preview – Telegraph


The damaging bureaucracy of academic peer preview

Academic funding agencies should support research in unfashionable fields

 10:35PM BST 02 Jun 2014
SIR – Under current policies, academic researchers must submit their proposals to a small group of their closest competitors – their peers – for consideration before they might be funded. Peers selected by funding agencies are usually allowed to deliver their verdicts anonymously. They assess the proposal’s suitability for funding, whether it would be the best possible use of the resources requested, and determine, if it were successful, the probability that it might contribute to the national economy in some way. If the answers are satisfactory the proposal has roughly a 25 per cent chance of being funded.

Peer preview is now virtually unavoidable and its bureaucratic, protracted procedures are repeated for every change in direction or new phase of experimentation or for whatever an applicant might subsequently propose. Consequently, support for research that might lead to major new scientific discoveries is virtually forbidden nowadays, and science is in serious danger of stagnating. Many scientists privately deplore these policies but their professional standing often depends on their acquiescence – a catch-22 that effectively diminishes public opposition to the policies. We call upon funding agencies to support sustained, open-ended research in unfashionable fields.

Donald W Braben
University College London

John F Allen
Queen Mary, University of London

William Amos
University of Cambridge

Richard Ball
University of Edinburgh

Tim Birkhead
FRS, University of Sheffield

Peter Cameron
Queen Mary, University of London

Richard Cogdell FRS
University of Glasgow;

David Colquhoun FRS
University College London;

Rod Dowler
Industry Forum, London

Irene Engle
United States Naval Academy, Annapolis;

Felipe Fernández-Armesto
University of Notre Dame

Desmond Fitzgerald
Materia Medica

John Hall
University of Colorado, Nobel Laureate

Pat Heslop-Harrison
University of Leicester

Dudley Herschbach
Harvard University, Nobel Laureate

H Jeff Kimble
Caltech, US National Academy of Sciences

Sir Harry Kroto FRS
Florida State University, Nobel Laureate

James Ladyman
University of Bristol

Peter Lawrence FRS
University of Cambridge

Angus MacIntyre FRS
Queen Mary, University of London

John Mattick FAA
Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney

Beatrice Pelloni
University of Reading

Douglas Randall
University of Missouri

David Ray
Bio Astral Limited

Sir Richard J Roberts FRS
New England Biolabs, Nobel Laureate

Ken Seddon
Queen’s University of Belfast

Colin Self
University of Newcastle

Harry Swinney
University of Texas, US National Academy of Sciences;

Claudio Vita-Finzi FBA
Natural History Museum

Ursula Mittwoch – “Be kind to colleagues”

It was a privilege and a pleasure to attend Ursula Mittwoch’s birthday reception in the Housman Room at UCL on 18 March 2014.

Ursula’s contributions to genetics underly what we know and are even inclined, perhaps, to take for granted today.

Interview by Peter Harper on 2 March 2004

From reading such authors as J. B. S. Haldane and C. D. Darlington, I’d long known the famous names mentioned by Ursula in her interview with Peter Harper. Those personal heroes knew Ursula and her work. The name Mittwoch came up for me many times in subsequent years. I first met Ursula in 2013, whilst on sabbatical at UCL, where Fiona Williamson kindly introduced us. Fiona and Nick Lane knew of our common interests and drew my attention to one recent publication.

Mittwoch, U. (2013) Sex determination. EMBO Reports 14, 588-592. DOI: 10.1038/embor.2013.84

Ursula’s memorable reception speech contained one piece of advice.  It is surely a perennial key to scientific success.

Be kind to colleagues…

Happy birthday, Ursula!


Left to right: John Allen, Sue Povey, Ursula Mittwoch, Dallas Swallow, Nick Lane. Photo by Fiona Williamson

A university is… | Comments welcomed

A university is a community of scholars whose purpose is to advance and disseminate knowledge. Research advances knowledge. Teaching disseminates it. Research requires freedom, supportive infrastructure, cooperation, communication, and trust. Teaching is communication and critical examination of existing knowledge within an open society where nothing is beyond question and where knowledge is thus free to advance. Research and teaching are inter-dependent.

What do universities actually do?

Following items in Times Higher Education, good friends currently correspond on Twitter concerning first-hand experiences working in different universities in the USA, Germany, and the UK.

I’ve long thought that what is missing from discussion of topics such “management” and “value for money” is an agreed description of what is a university’s output or “product”.  Without this, how can we have any idea of effectiveness in deployment of input?  There seems to be some confusion. I can recall the question going back to to the first UK Research Assessment Exercise in 1986, which followed The Jarratt Report.  I seem to recall Jarratt being quoted as saying that the loudest objections to the idea of university “management” came from departments notorious for “old Spanish practices”.  I think good and honest Spaniards might well have a phrase about “old English practices” with equal justification, and this is not just my attempt at being PC.  Anyway, in the department where I worked at that time, I felt I could see exactly what Jarratt had in mind, whichever nationality he chose to sleight.  Public money was underwriting personal fiefdoms, thinly disguised protection rackets, and arms for endless and pointless wars over who owned which particular piece of academic territory – what should be taught and researched, and by whom.  I was temporarily away in a superb US university, and wished my own UK institution would just grow up and get on with the job.

But what exactly is the job?

A decade later than Jarratt, and in Sweden where the same confusion and waste seemed to hold sway, I found that an eminent German visitor had had exactly the same thought as mine.  ”Well, what is all this actually for?” I asked rhetorically.  ”What is our product?”

“We have a product” he replied with conviction.  ”It is knowledge“.

Back in the UK, I more recently wrote the following as a sort of short manifesto.  It didn’t command much support. Another candidate had read my piece, I think, and his own popular manifesto was emphatic that a university does not have a product. One gathered that it was somehow degrading to think so. He was elected with a clear majority.  I didn’t mind. He seems to be doing good job to this day.

So, brief manifesto, as follows.  What is so controversial?

Universities have a product. This product is knowledge. Research produces new knowledge. Teaching distributes it. Successful universities produce and distribute a quality product at a competitive price. Research requires freedom, supportive infrastructure, cooperation, communication, trust. Teaching requires the promotion of existing knowledge within an open society where nothing is beyond question.


The subject of the header photograph; you; me; the remarkable people who built and sent the camera; all our homes, history, hopes, fears, aspirations:–

Bright ‘Evening Star’ Seen from Mars is Earth

Fig. 1 (do view full-screen) includes the evening horizon, giving depth from perspective. Breathtaking. Wish Carl Sagan could have seen this.

“The distance between Earth and Mars when Curiosity took the photo was about 99 million miles (160 million kilometres)”.