Searching for Einsteins
Is science stagnating?
That's the claim from scientists at University College London, who are so concerned about the diminishing returns from more and more funding, that they're stumping up the cash to support scientists engaged in truly original "paradigm shifting" research.
The Venture Research Prize is the brainchild of professor Don Braben, who will lead the selection panel. The benefits of science, he argues, are inherently unpredictable. Lasers, nuclear power, the transistor, computers and even antibiotics were all either discovered accidentally or the value of their applications was not appreciated in advance.
"Almost everything we value today came unexpectedly from the work of a few pioneering researchers. Scientists like Einstein and Rutherford, Crick and Watson. Their work transformed our lives and underpins modern civilisation. We call them the Planck club after the German physicist who founded quantum theory".
It's a claim that seems hard to square with the massive increase in funding. By 2011 the UK science budget will have reached more than £4 billion. That's a huge amount of money doled out by research councils to support a vast array of projects and individual scientists.
But with all this largesse has come new rules to ensure the taxpayer is getting value for money. Scientists applying for grants now routinely have to justify their research in terms of the results they expect or the uses it can be put to.
And while peer review works well for the majority of projects, Don Braben argues, it fails at the margins where the really important discoveries are made. There's less and less scope for scientists to challenge the conventional wisdom.
"Where are the Einsteins and Plancks of the 21st century going to come from?"