“Vague but exciting…” is what Tim Berners-Lee’s boss scribbled on his proposal to build the worldwide web before giving him the go-ahead to start work. If today’s research proposal rules had been in place, I’d argue it might never have happened because, in health services at least, the process has become one of regimented, formulaic stultification. One that squeezes the life out of innovative thinking and pins it to endless rigid forms that will only admit x-number-of-characters-including-spaces. By the time a project has been approved and funding granted, the thing that so excited and wired you up to the mains with creative energy is flapping feebly in a box covered in deadlines, imperatives, shoulds, don’ts and musts. Fiscally responsible, yes, but with about as much punch as a collapsed flan.
Furthermore, worthy and tight as a drum as the poor thing now is, it will be a one-off. There are no repeat grants and this, astonishingly, means that research goes out published with the legitimising tag of having been NIHR (for instance) supported, but it will never be replicated to further evaluate its findings and replication is fundamental to the principles of validation in research findings.
Yes, we have to be responsible and not cavalier with money, people, resources, and ethics, and there has certainly been good work done by good people via this process. But coming back to true innovation – some of the biggest submitted no bids because they were working out of their bedrooms: Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Google – who would have been courageous enough to fund those start-ups as research projects? I have no problem with thorough, painstaking, detailed research and the measures put in place to ensure nothing is wasted and nobody harmed. I do have a problem with the loss of a box for the ‘vague but exciting’ proposals that have the capacity to change worlds. Happy 25th birthday WWW, I think we are very lucky to have you.