Why response-mode research loses out

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Sir

Knowledge inferred from DNA sequences can make an important contribution to taxonomy, as discussed in Correspondence by Diethard Tautz et al. (Nature 418, 479; 200210.1038/418479a). But I fear that structural research-funding problems stand in the way of initiatives such as this, at least in the United Kingdom.

No charitable foundation is dedicated to the support of work in non-medical evolution and taxonomy; the UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is the main funding agency. However, as witnessed by my drawerful of alpha-rated but unfunded proposals, it does not appear to have enough money to go around. Systematic sequencing is a long-haul activity that needs long-term, modest funding. But proposals for the continuation of any line of work have to compete with the entire range of what is newest and best in the field (in my case, the whole of marine science), a competition that no proposal to do “more of the same” can possibly win, no matter how rare or how choice the samples.

Worse still, despite all the evidence that centralization leads to waste and failure, NERC sequesters a large proportion of its funds in thematic programmes, which many believe distort the research enterprise and give preferential funding access to largely self-selected coteries. Two questions that cannot be answered are these: “How many funded thematic projects would have succeeded in open competition?” and “Do thematic programmes provide better science than the (many more) response-mode proposals that would otherwise have been fundable?”. History provides the best guide to an answer. Before research councils were invented and before they started controlling research direction, British science was internationally well-regarded and successful. Is it still? How about a decade or two of response-mode-only funding, with all proposals in equal and open competition?

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Cohen, B. Why response-mode research loses out. Nature 419, 248 (2002) doi:10.1038/419248a

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