Last week Sir Paul Nurse was proposed as the candidate to be the next president of the Royal Society of London. His first act was to be interviewed in the Times, and to alienate the majority of scientists
His big idea is this:
In an interview with The Times, [Nurse] said that funders should identify 100 to 150 excellent scientists in all fields, who would get generous long-term support to pursue their interests.
There is some merit in this idea, but it could be done without dismissing everyone else:
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 [sic] 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?
Aaaagh! That was politically inept. In order to become president, he needs to be elected by the FRS’s. according to the Royal Society’s webpages
On the 31 March 2010, there were 1327 Fellows and 136 Foreign Members of the Royal Society.
So is he saying that most of the people who will vote for him are not “moving things significantly forward”?
Aside from the political stupidity, the argument doesn’t make much sense. It’s not really clear what Sir Paul Nurse means by “moving things significantly forward”. I assume he wants to see us making Big Steps, announcing cures for cancer or the discovery of an amazing new missing link. But I can see two problems (and feel free to add more in the comments).
First, Big Steps are rare in science. This may be because only a few people are capable of taking them, but it could also be because that’s not the way to learn about the world. There are a lot of details out there that need investigating. Just to give one example, my student (who defends next month, yay!) wrote a paper about where best to model environmental noise when analysing ecological time series. It’s not a big leap forward, but I think it’s a worthwhile question, and it’s one that might help other researchers: it may be that there will be a Big Step based on the analysis of ecological time series, and this paper will help. A lot of science is like this: it adds a little bit to the overall picture.
The second problem is that for Nurse’s idea to work, we have to be able to identify the people who will make those Big Leaps. My worry is not that some of the 150 Worthies may not make advances, but rather than there will be people outside the 150 who could make advances if given the support. One does wonder how much support will be taken away from them, and also how seriously someone from outside the 150 would be taken. Would being a second class scientist mean that one wouldn’t get the same respect? Fewer commentaries in Nature, or requests for interview? I can see the potential for lots of infighting and envy, but without the guarantee that the Glorious 150 would be producing much better science than under the current system.
I think there is a lot more that could be written about this idea. It may not be totally nuts, but it would have to be fleshed out a lot, preferably without insulting 99% of scientists.