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Don Braben
high-energy physicist, visiting professor of research innovation at University College London, and founder of Venture Research International

Bureaucracy is strangling scientific research. Before about 1970, scientists anywhere could count on small amounts of funding to play with. The prodigious harvest included lasers, nuclear power, transistors, a host of medical diagnostics, computers, antibiotics and genetic manipulation. All these discoveries were unpredicted but transformed economic growth. Life today would be awful without them.

However, Planck, Rutherford, Crick and Watson, to name but a few of the 20th century’s truly great scientists, did not have to submit to second guessing by their closest competitors before they embarked on revolutionary works. They simply got on with it. The Law of Unintended Consequences has changed all that.

Since about 1970, every scientist has had to justify every penny before it can be spent. Obstructed by so-called efficiency rules, scientists need a committee’s approval before they can do anything. In most walks of life, that requirement is merely a pain, but in science its consequences can be disastrous because it stifles revolutionary research. There are huge numbers of scientists, of course, but some of us have derived proven methods for spotting the Plancks in advance. Unfortunately, bureaucracy is apathetic, and it is unlikely that its paralysing grip will be broken without the positive intervention of the young – of all ages.

It is fashionable today to focus on the threats to humanity from war, disease, famine, global warming, or from extinction by a wayward meteor. However, the most important threat by far comes to us today from the insidious tides of bureaucracy because they strangle human ingenuity and undermine our very ability to cope. Unless we can find effective ways of liberating our pioneers within about a decade or so, the economic imperatives mean that society’s breakdown could be imminent.

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