There’s been a lot of arguing – has been for many years – about research funding over in the EU. This is above and beyond the usual “not enough” protests, which are the way with funding of pretty much everything, pretty much everywhere, pretty much all the time.
A word on that: in my last 25 years of hearing academic researchers talk about grant money, never once have I heard that the situation is good. It’s always bad, worse, getting worse, tight, terrible, year in and year out. That’s not to say that sometimes those adjectives haven’t been accurate, but it’s hard to imagine that they’ve applied without letup. Some years ago, I realized that asking a professor about research grants is exactly like asking a farmer about rain. I did grow up on the Mississippi Delta, which actually comes in handy once in a while.
But the latest EU discussion is only partially about the amount of money involved; it’s also about how it’s to be used. There was an editorial in Nature not long ago from a fellow who wanted to make sure that it was spent wisely. “Wisely”, in his view, was to make sure that it goes to “problems society recognizes as central”, and the way to do this, naturally, was to have large research collaborations and consortia. These would presumably be put together by committees, commissions, and various far-seeing agencies staffed by the sorts of experts who spring up whenever the money starts to sprinkle down. I can just hear the Third Organization Meeting of the Steering Committee starting up right now, the chairman reminding everyone that they have a very full schedule today, please take your seats for our first speaker on "The Challenges and Opportunities of Interdisciplinary Research Management in a Multipolar World". . .
I grit my teeth when I think about this sort of thing; it's enough to make a man wish he'd gone to truck-driving school instead. So I particularly enjoyed a letter that the journal printed in response, from Theo Wallimann at the ETH in Zurich. He points out that nearly every single significant discovery in the history of science has come outside the framework of such top-down research consortia. Single researchers or small groups pursuing their own ideas have been the source of the good stuff, and half the time these breakthroughs haven’t even been what people were looking for in the first place. Says Wallimann about the big multicenter operations:
“. . . These mostly involve laboratories that have already established their name and fame, and are now often comfortably operating on well-worn tracks or working opportunistically on headline-grabbing problems or fashionable topics.
Science and innovation are chaotic, stochastic processes that cannot be governed and controlled by desk-bound planners and politicians, whatever their intentions. Good scientists are by definition anarchists,”
I can only cheer him on, because I couldn’t do a better job of summing up what I believe about science myself. In tribute, I’m going to go out to my lab and try something anarchic: an experiment that’s very interesting, but has very little chance of succeeding. If the EU really wants to tell its scientists what to do, they would be better off mandating six months of the same.