Chasing after creativity (and cash)

Every year, educators everywhere pay close attention to the Times Higher Education Supplement’s rankings of The World’s Top 200 universities. Parents of kids with college-entry potential must be eagerly taking note too (while calculating the likely returns on their investment).

The Times Higher Education Supplement has released “The World’s Top 200 Universities” list for 2007. It ranked Tokyo University 17th in World. The top 3 universities were Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford.

Other Japanese universities that made it within the rankings were: Kyoto (25), Osaka (46), Tokyo Institute of Technology (90), Tohoku (102), Nagoya (112), Kyushu (136), Hokkaido (151) and Kobe University (197). What must be generating shock waves now were the Keio and Waseda rankings. Most prestigious in Japan, it appears Keio and Waseda universities in the world eyes merely deserved their respective rankings of 161st and 180th respectively. Horrors…at this alarming rate, Waseda U. might possibly fall off the charts next year.

What will surely follow in the media and public arena will be rounds of examining what’s went wrong with the Japanese education system.

The other list that will be scrutinised next and relentlessly debated, is the number of Nobel award laureates produced by each country.

Last year, at our edn-in-jpn@yahoogroups.com community arena, we had our own heated discussions (by parents and educators) over what’s wrong with the J. system.

The usual criticisms were thrown up — J. teachers lacked creativity in their teaching methods and styles; the national curriculum was rigid; generating an overall “sameness” in the population’s knowledge base; the breeding of conformity and consensus values in J. schools.

I had my own theories that it was the mediocrity of the middle-class mass mentality, the malaise or general lack of drive of offspring of an affluent society that were at fault for the declining academic standards in schools. At the institutional level, creativity was hampered by old J. hierarchical structures and values. But the underlying and most important reason, I believed, why the US (and not Japan or any other country) was the leader of the day in science and research, college rankings and all that jazz, is that creativity follows money. In other words, find the spot in the world that’s flush with funding, that’s where you’ll find the hottest schools, colleges and research institutions. That argument didn’t go down very well with some people as I recall e-eggs in my face, but I feel somewhat vindicated by the most recent journalistic piece in the Times Higher Education Supplement, “From Brain Drain to Bright Future” excerpted below. The article below makes the point (among others) that funding support is the key to producing important and noteworthy research and the lack of it leads to a brain drain. Other points made in passing were the need for a strong education system as well as an environment conducive to cultivating the “minority”.

From brain drain to bright future8 May 2008

The Times Higher Education Supplement

By Matthew Reisz

Cambridge leads the field in producing Nobel science laureates, but many of the UK’s best scientists have left to pursue work in the US. Matthew Reisz finds out from past winners what tempted them to go and why many feel the tide is turning in the UK’s favour.

No one, of course, has a reliable recipe for creativity….(snip)…Since Cambridge tops the Nobel league table, it naturally forms the subject of one of the student films. The young director was clearly baffled by the place and put together a collage of vignettes and testimonies: clipped lawns, umbrellas and bicycles; a chef explaining how to make beef-and-swan pie; a fellow solemnly praising the role of playfulness in creativity; another describing his first time at high table, when his neighbours talked across him for most of the meal until one suddenly turned to him with the words “cricket or rugby?” A bold attempt to capture the university’s unique selling point describes it as an institution melding the hierarchical base of a medieval church foundation with the collegiality that makes it feel like a family, albeit one with servants.

No one designing a university from scratch, one can’t help reflecting, would ever have invented Cambridge. But, if we judge results in terms of Nobel prizes, it has clearly got the right formula or at least a better formula than anywhere else.

 

Great science obviously depends on cultural, institutional, political and financial factors, but it is also influenced by chance, unusual career paths – and the quirks of highly atypical individuals. When Sulston won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2002, he said to a journalist about his co-winner: “You must meet Bob Horvitz. He’s spent 30 years of his life studying the 22 cells of a worm’s vulva!” No parental encouragement, no education system, no government initiative can actually create or predict people with such strange and obscure passions. (Snip)

 

What we can track is some of the push factors that led much of the cream of British science to head for America to pursue the research that led to Nobels. The distinguished scientist Anthony Cheetham, who has recently returned after 16 years in the US to take up the post of Goldsmiths’ professor of materials science at Cambridge, offers a good overview. “Britain went through a period of lean funding,” he explains. “There was a very good period in molecular biology in the 1960s and 1970s, when we got more than our fair share of Nobel prizes, then a lean period in the 1980s when funding and morale were poor. When I left in 1991, the States was clearly the premier league.”

 

As his own career move suggests, Cheetham now believes the tide has turned and is even willing to put a rough date on this. “There is now a pan-European improvement, so Britain fits into a more general trend. There’s been a turnaround since about 1998-99. Funding in the US has been more or less flat, with output flat as well, whereas European output has improved dramatically. Now Britain is doing pretty well. There’s much more funding from the European Community, through framework programmes and the new European Research Council. Funding success rates are now very low in the US.” All in all, he concludes, “the US has lost market share”. (snip)

 

Cheetham even points to a measure that tracks what is happening more or less in real time. He has recently looked at publication trends in leading American journals in his own specialist areas, condensed-matter and materials physics. “Over the past ten years,” he says, “America has gone from being dominant to being second to Western Europe.” A more general survey published in the journal Nature last year confirms this picture in scientific publications across the board. Perhaps this will be reflected in the pattern of Nobel prize winners ten or 15 years down the line. (snip)

 

Most of the active British Nobel laureates agreed to be interviewed for this article – and they tended to be in broad agreement with Cheetham. Sir Tim Hunt (physiology or medicine, 2001), an expert on control of protein synthesis who now works for Cancer Research UK, also feels that things went badly wrong in the 1980s. “Mrs Thatcher didn’t do much good”, he recalls, “as she was so anti-intellectual. People felt pressure to go into industry or the financial sector rather than basic research. Everything had to be useful.” While this was partly a question of funding, it was reflected in the general atmosphere and mood music of a time when his most talented students were aggressively recruited by banks or saw their future in management consultancy. (snip)

Money, morale and official attitudes were all closely linked. “Our lab (in the Cambridge department of biochemistry) was awfully run-down,” Hunt explains, “so we felt a bit ashamed when distinguished visitors came by. Even now there is a good deal of make-do-and-mend, whereas Americans actually celebrate this kind of intellectual work.” In times like that, it is easy to understand the lure of well-funded American universities. (snip)

 

“I definitely think that not just in science,” he argues, “but in any creative field of endeavour, it is an advantage to have been a ‘minority’ while growing up, be it through religion, ethnicity or even left-handedness.” He still values the extra dimension to his thinking he gained from his philosophical training at Oxford and has wondered elsewhere about the impact of his Catholic background and “how far the experience, in childhood and adolescence, of maintaining and defending – sometimes in public and in the face of some ridicule – beliefs and attitudes not shared by the vast majority of my compatriots may have influenced my subsequent attitude to physics and indeed to life in general”.

In this context, it is worth remembering that many of the great names of “British science” were from elsewhere, whether voluntary migrants from Australia, New Zealand or South Africa or enforced exiles from the Nazis. Quite apart from the sheer numbers, they may well have brought “outsider” perspectives that helped them cut through received wisdom.

 

The dynamism of American recruitment methods had a decisive impact on where Roberts decided to build his career (he has still not heard back from the University of Edinburgh, although he knows for a fact that they received his application). In the UK, he explains, “people don’t recruit individuals as hard as they could. You naturally go to the place where you really feel you are wanted.”

 

Financial factors added an extra dimension. The problem, Roberts says now, is that “it was thought to be a privilege to be in Britain, and the money was not available. That led to a putty-and-string mentality, whereas research was gold-plated in the US

Looking ahead, Roberts feels that “America is where the action is, but there are also plenty of hotspots in Britain and Europe”. He still worries that British official policy has “too much of an obsession with measuring practical utility. The future (as well as the Nobel prizes) comes from blue-skies research rather than applied. As soon as you say you know where you’re going, you know what you’re going to discover in advance. Funding mechanisms discourage people from digressing and following their noses.” (snip)

The ingredients for Nobel success may be many and varied, but if the prevailing environment is unsupportive we are unlikely to encourage academics to produce their finest work – and, if they do, it may not be at institutions in the UK. (snip)

 

The crisis

The crisis of the 1980s – still reflected in the poor British performance in winning Nobel prizes – was caused by severe underinvestment in the UK’s science base and a lack of commitment by the Government to a long-term policy to improve this. Too few people were being educated in science and engineering, especially at university level.

The UK lagged behind competitor countries in investment in research and development. Civil R&D represented just 1.6 per cent of the gross domestic product in the mid-1980s.

As SBS often pointed out at the time, these factors had a number of dispiriting and damaging effects.

 

Many universities found it extremely difficult to fill academic positions, and the UK was losing talent overseas. Early-career researchers were particularly demoralised. Many highly rated research proposals were not being funded in the UK but would receive funding elsewhere.

 

Although the Government has more than doubled the science budget since 1997, there are still many outstanding issues. The recent Science and Technology Facilities Council’s budget and delivery plan has put the UK’s standing in particle physics and astronomy in jeopardy. The repercussions for scientists’ morale and international collaborations are already being felt. The situation has to be rectified before research is cut and highly skilled scientists are lost.

 

The Government’s science policies are putting more pressure on research to have an economic or public-policy impact. It is critical that Government departments and industry finance this type of research while leaving more space for publicly funded basic research driven by a desire to answer fundamental questions.

We need to support scientists pursuing new ideas that can reshape our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

We need to improve the education system if we are going to have the leading scientists of the future – and perhaps win a larger share of Nobel prizes. Yet there are still not enough trained science and mathematics teachers to enthuse the next generation.

Read the article in its entirety here.

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