On the referendum #26: How to change science funding post-Brexit [updated with comment by Alan Kay]

There was an excellent piece in the Telegraph yesterday by two young neuroscientists on how SW1 should be thinking about science post-Brexit. The byline says that James Phillips works at Janelia, a US lab that has explicitly tried to learn about how to fund science research from the famous successes of Bell Labs, the ARPA-PARC project that invented the internet and PC, and similar efforts. He must see every day how science funding can work so much better than is normal in Britain.

Today, the UK a) ties research up in appalling bureaucracy, such as requiring multi-stage procurement processes literally to change a lightbulb, and b) does not fund it enough. The bureaucracy around basic science is so crazy that a glitch in paper work means thousands of animals are secretly destroyed in ways the public would be appalled to learn if made public.

Few in SW1 take basic science research seriously. And in all the debates over Brexit, practically the entire focus is 1980s arguments over the mechanism for regulating product markets created by Delors to centralise power in Brussels — the Internal Market (aka Single Market). Thirty years after they committed to this mechanism and two years after the referendum that blew it up, most MPs still don’t understand what it is and how it works. Dismally, the last two years has been a sort of remedial education programme and there has been practically zero discussion about how Britain could help create the future

During the referendum, Vote Leave argued that the dreadful Cameron/Osborne immigration policy (including the net migration target) was damaging and said we should make Britain MORE welcoming to scientists. Obviously Remain-SW1 likes to pretend that the May/Hammond Remain team’s shambles is the only possible version of Brexit. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the government had funded the NHS, ditched the ‘tens of thousands’ absurdity, and, for example, given maths, physics and computer science PhDs ‘free movement’ then things would be very different now — and Corbyn would probably be a historical footnote.

Regardless of how you voted in the referendum, reasonable people outside the rancid environment of SW1 should pressure their MPs to take their responsibilities to science x100 more seriously than they do.

I strongly urge you to read it all, send it to your MP, and politely ask for action…

(Their phrase ‘creating the future’ invokes Alan Kay’s famous line — the best way to predict the future is to invent it.)

Science holds the key, by James & Matthew Phillips

The 2008 crisis should have led us to reshape how our economy works. But a decade on, what has really changed? The public knows that the same attitude that got us into the previous economic crisis will not bring us long-term prosperity, yet there is little vision from our leaders of what the future should look like. Our politicians are sleeping, yet have no dreams. To solve this, we must change emphasis from creating “growth” to creating the future: the former is an inevitable product of the latter.

Britain used to create the future, and we must return to this role by turning to scientists and engineers. Science defined the last century by creating new industries. It will define this century too: robotics, clean energy, artificial intelligence, cures for disease and other unexpected advances lie in wait. The country that gives birth to these industries will lead the world, and yet we seem incapable of action.

So how can we create new industries quickly? A clue lies in a small number of institutes that produced a strikingly large number of key advances. Bell Labs produced much of the technology underlying computing. The Palo Alto Research Centre did the same for the internet. There are simple rules of thumb about how great science arises, embodied in such institutes. They provided ambitious long-term funding to scientists, avoided unnecessary bureaucracy and chased high-risk, high-reward projects.

Today, scientists spend much of their time completing paperwork. A culture of endless accountability has arisen out of a fear of misspending a single pound. We’ve seen examples of routine purchases of LEDs that cost under £10 having to go through a nine-step bureaucratic review process.

Scientists on the cusp of great breakthroughs can be slowed by years mired in review boards and waiting on a decision from on high. Their discoveries are thus made, and capitalised on, elsewhere. We waste money, miss patents, lose cures and drive talented scientists away to high-paid jobs. You don’t cure cancer with paperwork. Rather than invigilate every single decision, we should do spot checks retrospectively, as is done with tax returns.

A similar risk aversion is present in the science funding process. Many scientists are forced to specify years in advance what they intend to do, and spend their time continually applying for very short, small grants. However, it is the unexpected, the failures and the accidental, which are the inevitable cost and source of fruit in the scientific pursuit. It takes time, it takes long-term thinking, it takes flexibility. Peter Higgs, Nobel laureate who predicted the Higgs Boson, says he wouldn’t stand a chance of being funded today for lack of a track record. This leads scientists collectively to pursue incremental, low-risk, low-payoff work.

The current funding system is also top-down, prescriptive and homogenous, administered centrally from London. It is slow to respond to change and cut off from the real world.

We should return to funding university departments more directly, allowing more rapid, situation-aware decision-making of the kind present in start-ups, and create a diversity of funding systems. This is how the best research facilities in history operated, yet we do not learn their key lesson: that science cannot be managed by central edict, but flourishes through independent inquiry.

While Britain built much of modern science, today it neglects it, lagging behind other comparable nations in funding, and instead prioritising a financial industry prone to blowing up. Consider that we spent more money bailing out the banks in a single year than we have on science in the entirety of history.

We scarcely pause to consider the difference in return on investment. Rather than prop up old industries, we should invest in world-leading research institutes with a specific emphasis on high-risk, high-payoff research.

Those who say this is not government’s role fail the test of history. Much great science has come from government investment in times of crisis. Without Nasa, there would be no SpaceX. These government investments were used to provide a long-term, transformative vision on a scale that cannot be achieved through private investment alone – especially where there is a high risk of failure but high reward in success. The payoff of previous investments was enormous, so why not replicate the defence funding agencies that led to them with peacetime civilian equivalents?

In order to be the nation where new discoveries are made, we must take decisive steps to make the UK a magnet for talented young scientists.

However, a recent report on ensuring a successful UK research endeavour scarcely mentioned young scientists at all. An increased focus on this goal, alongside simple steps like long-term funding and guaranteed work visas for their spouses, would go a long way. In short, we should be to scientific innovation what we are to finance: a highly connected nerve centre for the global economy.

The political candidate that can leverage a pro-science platform to combine economic stimulus with the reality of economic pragmatism will transform the UK. We should lead the future by creating it.

James Phillips is a PhD student in neuroscience at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus in the US and the University of Cambridge. 
Matthew Phillips is a PhD student in neuroscience at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre, University College London


Alan Kay, the brilliant researcher I mentioned above, happened to read this blog and posted this comment which I will also paste below here…

[From Alan Kay]

Good advice! However, I’m afraid that currently in the US there is nothing like the fabled Bell Labs or ARPA-PARC funding, at least in computing where I’m most aware of what is and is not happening (I’m the “Alan Kay” of the famous quote).

It is possible that things were still better a few years ago in the US than in the UK (I live in London half the year and in Los Angeles the other half). But I have some reasons to doubt. Since the new “president”, the US does not even have a science advisor, nor is there any sign of desire for one.

A visit to the classic Bell Labs of its heyday would reveal many things. One of the simplest was a sign posted randomly around: “Either do something very useful, or very beautiful”. Funders today won’t fund the second at all, and are afraid to fund at the risk level needed for the first.

It is difficult to sum up ARPA-PARC, but one interesting perspective on this kind of funding was that it was both long range and stratospherically visionary, and part of the vision was that good results included “better problems” (i.e. “problem finding” was highly valued and funded well) and good results included “good people” (i.e. long range funding should also create the next generations of researchers). in fact, virtually all of the researchers at Xerox PARC had their degrees funded by ARPA, they were “research results” who were able to get better research results.

Since the “D” was put on ARPA in the early 70s, it was then not able to do what it did in the 60s. NSF in the US never did this kind of funding. I spent quite a lot of time on some of the NSF Advisory Boards and it was pretty much impossible to bridge the gap between what was actually needed and the difficulties the Foundation has with congressional oversight (and some of the stipulations of their mission).

Bob Noyce (one of the founders of Intel) used to say “Wealth is created by Scientists, Engineers and Artists, everyone else just moves it around”.

Einstein said “We cannot solve important problems of the world using the same level of thinking we used to create them”.

A nice phrase by Vi Hart is “We must insure human wisdom exceeds human power”.

To make it to the 22nd century at all, and especially in better shape than we are now, we need to heed all three of these sayings, and support them as the civilization we are sometimes trying to become. It’s the only context in which “The best way to predict the future is to invent it” makes any useful sense.