Which would be a recipe for complete scientific inertia but very cosy. To encourage innovation, the opposite is needed. Funding should principally be directed towards testing new ideas. Very few scientists have more than one new idea in their lifetime and many do not have even one. They just replough well-worn furrows. The conformity over the wildly speculative global warming theory shows that pressures not to think outside establishment dogma are already alarmingly strong
Public funding of science should become more elitist, says the Nobel laureate nominated as next head of Britain’s national academy of science.
Sir Paul Nurse, named yesterday as the only candidate to succeed Lord Rees of Ludlow as President of the Royal Society, called for reform of the £3.2 billion budget to give more support to the few scientists who can “really move the needle” by making major discoveries.
In an interview with The Times, the geneticist, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2001 and is currently president of the Rockefeller University in New York, said that funders should identify 100 to 150 excellent scientists in all fields, who would get generous long-term support to pursue their interests.
The amount of funding would vary from field to field, and the elite would be assessed for five to seven years to ensure that they still deserved their status. Some money would still have to be available for other scientists to apply for grants to support individual projects, he said.
“I am actually a complete non-elitist in many aspects of my life, including science education up to a certain age, but when it comes to research I am really pretty elitist,” Sir Paul said. “There are not all that many people who can really move the needle.
“It is an interesting paradox, because we have quite a lot of people in the scientific endeavour, but not so many of them are people who are moving things significantly forward. Much of the work is worthybut the question is, do we have enough at that top end who make real discoveries? Are we attracting enough people there, and are we resourcing them enough?
“I think there has probably been too much attention paid to keeping the whole endeavour going in a sensible way, and not enough focus on how you can identify the very, very best, and make sure that they really do perform to their best ability.
“I think this has got to be solved really by having support systems that can reflect the fact that some people are very, very good and we should support them while they are very, very good.
“You need a combination of special systems that attract and support those who are excellent, and rigorous reviews so that when they cease to be excellent, as many often are, they don’t just hang on to those resources ... they can fit into the more general system.”
Sir Paul is a former chief executive of Cancer Research UK. The Royal Society confirmed yesterday that he was its chosen candidate and will ballot its 1,314 fellows to support his nomination.
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