“We need more scientific mavericks”

Scientists write: “Mavericks once played an essential role in research. Indeed, their work defined the 20th century. We need influential allies.”

Gotta love this letter published in the guardian.com this week.  It comes from a number of scientists throughout the world who are obviously frustrated with the barriers being thrown up around them - financial, antiquated procedures and techniques to name a few - and would like to see changes.

When you speak of scientific mavericks, you might look directly at Improbable Research's annual Ig Nobel awards which recognize the arguably leading edge of maverick scientific work.   

Improbable Research too reprinted the letter below and noted their observation: "It has not escaped our notice that several of the scientists who wrote that letter have for a long time been encouraging and supporting things that make people LAUGH, then THINK."

Indeed, what could be better?

Here's The Guardian letter:

We need more scientific mavericks

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts," said Richard Feynman in the 1960s. But times change. Before about 1970, academics had access to modest funding they could use freely. Industry was similarly enlightened. Their results included the transistor, the maser-laser, the electronics and telecommunications revolutions, nuclear power, biotechnology and medical diagnostics galore that enriched the lives of virtually everyone; they also boosted 20th-century economic growth.

After 1970, politicians substantially expanded academic sectors. Peer review's uses allowed the rise of priorities, impact etc, and is now virtually unavoidable. Applicants' proposals must convince their peers that they serve national policies and are the best possible uses of resources. Success rates are about 25%, and strict rules govern resubmissions. Rejected proposals are usually lost.

Industry too has lost its taste for the unpredictable. The 500 major discoveries, almost all initiated before about 1970, challenged mainstream science and would probably be vetoed today. Nowadays, fields where understanding is poor are usually neglected because researchers must convince experts that working in them will be beneficial.

However, small changes would keep science healthy. Some are outlined in Donald Braben's book, Promoting the Planck Club: How Defiant Youth, Irreverent Researchers and Liberated Universities Can Foster Prosperity Indefinitely.

But policies are deeply ingrained. Agencies claiming to support blue-skies research use peer review, of course, discouraging open-ended inquiries and serious challenges to prevailing orthodoxies. Mavericks once played an essential role in research. Indeed, their work defined the 20th century.

We must relearn how to support them, and provide new options for an unforeseeable future, both social and economic. We need influential allies."

Donald W Braben University College London

John F Allen Queen Mary, University of London

William Amos University of Cambridge

Richard Ball University of Edinburgh

Tim Birkhead FRS University of Sheffield

Peter Cameron Queen Mary, University of London

Richard Cogdell FRS University of Glasgow

David Colquhoun FRS University College London

Rod Dowler Industry Forum, London

Irene Engle United States Naval Academy, Annapolis

Felipe Fernández-Armesto University of Notre Dame

Desmond Fitzgerald Materia Medica

Pat Heslop-Harrison University of Leicester

Dudley Herschbach Harvard University, Nobel Laureate

H Jeff Kimble Caltech, US National Academy of Sciences

Sir Harry Kroto FRS Florida State University, Tallahassee, Nobel Laureate

James Ladyman University of Bristol

Nick Lane University College London

Peter Lawrence FRS University of Cambridge

Angus MacIntyre FRS Queen Mary, University of London

John Mattick Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney

Beatrice Pelloni University of Reading

Martyn Poliakoff FRS University of Nottingham

Douglas Randall University of Missouri

David Ray Bio Astral Limited

Sir Richard J Roberts FRS New England Biolabs, Nobel Laureate

Ken Seddon Queen's University of Belfast

Colin Self University of Newcastle

Harry Swinney University of Texas, US National Academy of Sciences

Claudio Vita-Finzi FBA Natural History Museum

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