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Searching for Einsteins

Tom Feilden | 09:57 UK time, Thursday, 11 December 2008

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.

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"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".

Albert EinsteinIt'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?"


  • Comment number 1.

    There is a far greater problem for the independent thinker who is outside of the existing conventional science boundaries, such as the private individual inventor. Take my own case as an example, I am the originating inventor of any portable transmitter that also combines a camera and a navigation system, a camera phone is a good example, and hold three US patents and one Japanese patent. My name is listed in the Science Reference Library's in Japan, United States and the United Kingdom, but I have absolutely no standing whatsoever in my own country. And even more so than the scientists you are all debating about, no source of funding of any form. None!

    Here in the UK the private inventor is not only unfunded and unrecognised, conventional scientists, (not everyone, but a significant number), treat us as though we are carrying some form of dreadful disease that they might catch if they come into contact with us. We cannot even expect the common courtesy of the acknowledgement of receipt of that which we send to the most illustrious, let alone the most humble.

    New, good, fresh and important thinking does not flow from the ownership of a picture framed piece of paper hung on a wall or a grand title painted on a door; it flows from a mind that is perhaps less trammelled by convention. More open to the new and original and unafraid to act upon an instinctive thought, rather than worry that their colleagues down the hall will disrespect their Independence; their open minds.

    Private, individual inventors are such people.

    Please, think about that.

    Chris Coles.

  • Comment number 2.

    Systems impose reistrictions and limit individuals. By endowing funds-- and of course well-defined expectations-- the scope of scientist's thought and imagination is narrowed to the scope of the research. How else would you explain the collapse of great civilizations, but for the fact that the systems that had been developed became ultimately too rigid: Their greatest strengths ultimately rusted and turned into weaknesses. This is true for any system, because systems in their very essence are reistrictions.

  • Comment number 3.

    At last Good news! Because I was depressed by reading British tabloids today - and, thank you, - you reanimate my believe in Britain!
    So the problem is raised.I dare to formulate this in a such way: how is it possible by using standart methods get nonstandart results. To give more money? Alas, Chris - the owner of 3 (!!) patents, will not get them. Bureacratic pyramid with, yes with its rigourous rules immediately will be built.Or, dear Chris, may be this pyramid is working by now? My receipt - they must be fanatics, like some sport coashes - and i mean those people who will allocate the funds. And if such "allocaters" will be in competition - only the 'allocaters" - not the participants ... why not? Britain once again
    will be the example for all the world. 'Cause You have this in genes!!! Good luck!

  • Comment number 4.

    Great thread, good comments
    I was a scientist for 21 years with a very large british company. I have worked with universities very closely for all that time and have watched the evolution of how university science departments work in practice.
    In my opinion, the professors and staff do a marvellous job of working the funding and monitoring systems to conduct good research while keeping up fudning levels.
    The problem of finding the next Einstein I believe to be simple .. RECRUITMENT. Professors are often inclined or even forced through political alliances between unis to recruit a certain sort of person, usually with good people skills, the best qualifications from the best universities, plus good admin and organisational skills so that they can help the department chase funding.
    Unfortunateky, in my experience NONE of the above skills matter at all for recruiting a true scientist ... I have seen quite brilliant people overlooked who were quiet, shy, poor people skills, very disorganised, not very attractive qualities for the modern professor, but these people would systematically produce new ideas that worked like rabbits out of a hat. This type of person was not marginalised in the past, their quirkiness was an accepted part of being a scientist.
    To find these people, I would respectfully advise professors to interview FRINGE candidates who are edgy, constantly challenging patterns of thought, test them out in a long interview, string them out to dry, ignore all the usual red tape of smart suit, good talker, smiley, respectful etc since none of this will find the best candidate.
    I have very often met people like this who fared badly in the uni hierarchy, to spot them just listen out for the challengers who rip established theories apart with no respect for anyone.
    Such people can be hard to work with, I should know, but this is where the future of british science lies, not with candidates who look, sound and behave like marketing consultants !
    I was an average plodding scientist but I can spot a genius in 10 minutes flat in an interview.
    Hope that this stimulates discussion

  • Comment number 5.

    I don't believe this at all. There have been many very important discoveries in the past few decades.

    The invention of the PCR for one. The massive amount of cloning done in labs now to investigate gene and protein functions would not be practical before PCR.

    Additionally, transgenic mice only became a reality in the nineties.

    Structural biology has all but become a tool in the broader sense as computers have become faster, synchrotron and NMR machines more powerful. From these high-through-put structures and drug discoveries, we are on the verge of actually getting ahead of the resistant organisms.

    Moreover, extremely complected and challenging structures of membrane proteins and viral proteins are being revealed.

    The Einsteins of today are all around us. In every lab.

    Maybe the discoveries don't seem so huge to the lay-person. Or maybe most discoveries include whole labs and not just one or two names.

    Remember, often if there is only one or two names, those are people who have only put in the last piece of a puzzle that took many to put together. Either that, or the data was virtually stolen as in the case of the DNA helix.

    Just look at the way cancer has become more and more a treatable and curable disease. Look at the shear amount of productive data being produced. The theories put forth and others confirmed.

    From microbes to stars we are advancing in ways I'm sure even Einstein could not have imagined.


  • Comment number 6.

    The effrontery! on 13.11.2008 Tom Eddison of Salford Quays tried through every available means to publish his breakthrough insights (see below). it was met with COMPLETE silence. That is why there are no new Einsteins!

    Dear The Guardian,

    Please find attached an open letter from Mr. Thomas Eddison to Richard Dawkins outlining his prediction for the future course of human evolution.

    Mr. Eddison’s ‘theory’ centres around the evolution and promulgation of a soft ‘spongy tissue’ around the brain, which will protect the organ against impact.

    Mr. Eddison’s ‘Human Evolution in the Future; Addendum’ goes on to explain that:

    …In order to provide enough sponge to protect the brain from impact the head alone would need to measure, by my calculations, at least 3 metres (height) by 2 metres (width). This would have been an enormous burden in our evolutionary past when it was necessary, for example, to chase our prey – such as rabbits - under trees or through pipes. This is no longer necessary as in the last twenty years we have begun to farm rabbits and to set traps. I now regard the Eddison Spongification as not just probable but inevitable…

  • Comment number 7.

    I think it would really help if current science theory was taught in schools. Some of the really interesting and exciting stuff for example quantum theory and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle etc. Kids are still learning good old Newton...and while his theories still hold water I am not sure they are as inspiring. Plus many of today's applications require a knowledge of the more up to date stuff...

  • Comment number 8.

    The problem is most people find it very difficult to understand the language we currently use to communicate how we think the world works around us.
    Science, chemistry & physics are all communicated via the language of mathematics which i'm afraid is simply too complex for most of us mere mortals to understand. However if we were to adopt a new way of communicating our ideas and theories, one that was not quite so complex then I think you would find many more people beginning to think about there world around them and therefore successfully make a major discovery or two.

    I guess what I am saying is in order to really make the big big discoveries that will change our world we are going to need the help of everyone, from those with the PhD's and scientific backgrounds to those whom live and work on our streets, whom at the moment feel that the universe is just too complex for them to understand.

  • Comment number 9.

    If you are looking for another E=Mc2 type of leap in our understanding, it won’t come from a university. Universities do not create Einsteins. All of the great scientists of the past were gifted, or geniuses beforehand, colleges withstanding. However universities do like to stand in their limelight and pretend that they had a part in the process. The money that the universities are wanting, is for recruitment of such individuals but real creativity and genius is not easy to spot, and more money will not create more geniuses.

    Colleges also dictate the curriculum and so any creative person who wants to explore their own particular questions in science is not welcomed. Jumping through other people hoops destroys personal creativity, and wonderment. Progress will come as it always has, when a really smart and creative person asks the right questions, and is at the right place and the right time, in order to be able to explore those questions with the right tools. Colleges do not provide this kind of an atmosphere.

  • Comment number 10.

    Dusty Matter, I think I understand where you're going with this, but I have to disagree. Those gifted "geniuses" need an environment where they can flourish, a hothouse of differing ideas and techniques that might contribute and above all a place with access to other peoples maps of the paths they trod. Documented failure is often of more assistance to other peoples research than the successes. You won't find these papers in the back of an inventors garage. The right place, the right tools and to a degree the right questions are more likely to be found at a university than anywhere else. The problem these days is that results based funding refines existing technologies, it doesn't find new ones. Coupled with current secondary school curricula, the new generations haven't been equipped with the necessary tools or even the right attitudes to develop an "Enquiring Mind". Universities are spending more time doing the "teaching" that should have been done at school and so there is less time and resource for the student to develop "learning" (university's role). A levels show you can be "taught", a degree shows that can "learn", post grad allows you to develop your own ideas with acadenmic rigour. This cannot happen whilst universities are forced into "Teaching"

  • Comment number 11.

    This article is about scientists, not patent filers (greedy people who want to be rich and not just further science).

    If you are looking for an Einstein, don't.
    If one is out there they will find you.

    The most important trait in a person with such ingenuity is that they care less about money than they do about science.

    Besides, for a new Einstein to come along in Physics, people will have to prove Einstein wrong (not completely right). The scientists in this world would never allow that even though it will happen eventually.

  • Comment number 12.


    I don't think the language of Mathematics is too difficult for anyone to understand if the teaching of it were modified to fit the average individual.

    I can teach anyone anything.
    If needed, I will prove it. I have taught a 2 year old triple digit long division and a 13 yr old Multivariate Calculus at a Kumon center.

    Prime example. A woman at my college failed Calculus of a single Variable 3 times. She then took business Calc from the same teacher. A+. She was an accountant for 20 years prior. He spoke to her in her own language about his language.

    Would you teach your average 10 year old to speak Italian using only words that someone with an advanced literary degree would know?

    Everyone has an ability to learn everything. It is inherent in the fact that we all possess complex brain structure. Learning methods for upper level mathematics are centered around individuals who have a complete understanding of the upper level verbal language in which the course is being taught.

    You will never see an Advanced Algebra book written and taught in a language the average primary student can read. Scale down the words to the level of the students and the course becomes easy. Math should never be centered around language.


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