Opinion- 23 November 2010

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  Peter Hall

Peter Hall Comments on Ahmed Zewail's 'Curiouser and Curiouser: Managing Discovery Making'
Ahmed Zewail


pdf file-available from Australasian Science



In the November 17, 2010 issue of Nature Ahmed Zewail, 1999 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and a member of President Barack Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, detailed his reasons for urging that we: Beware the urge to direct research too closely. History teaches us the value of free scientific inquisitiveness*.

In this opinion piece Peter Hall§ uses Professor Zewail's "World View Column" as a basis to comment from an Australian's perspective.



Ahmed Zewail's article is powerful and instructive. For Australian scientists it comes at a pivotal time, as we await the Australian Research Council's first Excellence in Research for Australia, or ERA, report.

As Zewail points out, "creative minds and bureaucracies do not work harmoniously together.'' However, the conflict between scientific minds and the bureaucratic assessment of performance is only one of the challenges that we face. Another is the mismatch between the bureaucratic needs that motivated the design of ERA, and the other applications to which ERA methodology is being put.

ERA will contribute substantially to the Australian Government's annual Higher Education Research Data Collection exercise, for example by providing new types of information about research output and income. It will also be a major tool for the Government's management of research, largely but not solely through the distribution of research funding. However, motivated by ERA methodology, similar data and similar tools are already being used by Australian universities to manage scientists' careers, for example their hiring, their promotion and their salaries.

There is admittedly a division of viewpoints on the appropriateness of managing discovery-making through metrics, for example bibliometric analysis. Even so, it would often be agreed that using ERA metrics to guide appointment and promotion decisions is hazardous. The mathematician Andrew Wiles, who in 1995 published the first proof of the then 358-year-old conjecture known as Fermat's Last Theorem, is recorded by MathSciNet as having published only two peer-review articles in the five-year period 1990-4. This numerically sparse publication record would have been poorly regarded by some Australian universities, where he'd have been a doubtful candidate for appointment or promotion.

Other ERA protocols have drawn the ire of scientists and other researchers. They include the ERA ranked journal list, which has met with both praise and criticism from academics in Australia and abroad. Attention has been drawn too to mismatches between research fields and two- and four-digit FoR codes, and indeed the codes seem not to be good guides to research publication in a number of important areas. Moreover, disparities between successes in Discovery Grant competitions, and researchers' ERA bibliometric performance, have been noted with concern and puzzlement. The ARC has argued vigorously that each of these issues can and will be accommodated effectively in the ERA assessment. However, this manifest confidence is conditional on ERA being interpreted (as was always the ARC's intent) as an exercise in gathering data about the net performance of individual universities, not of individuals within those institutions.

Zewail would surely take issue with some Australian universities' borrowing of ERA metrics to assess, and thereby manage, the performance of our scientists. He argues against "tightly managed research,'' and what could be more tight than individual performance benchmarks that demand x papers in y journals in z years?




*Ahmed Zewail, Published online 17 November 2010 | Nature 468, 347 (2010) | doi:10.1038/468347a.
§Peter Hall, FAA, FRS is Professor of Mathematics and Statistics, The University of Melbourne.