Innovative science and blue-sky research

Seagull in blue sky - what research needs
Seagull in blue sky – what research needs

321. Braben DW, Heslop-Harrison JS and 48 others. 2015. Letter: Innovative science, Blue Sky research, scientific enterprise and prosperity. The Times (London) 23 September 2015. p. 28.  ( ££)

The Times (London) September 23, 2015 Wednesday Edition 1;
Letter on Innovative science

Sir, “Blue sky” research is vital to scientific enterprise and prosperity, yet it is increasingly hard to find funding for truly innovative projects. First, universities must approve all proposals that are submitted. Funding agencies then subject all proposals they receive to peer review, a process by which a few researchers, usually acting anonymously, assess the proposal’s chances of achieving its goals, whether it offers the best value for money, is relevant to a priority and has an impact on a socioeconomic problem. Only about 25 per cent of proposals win funding. These processes force researchers to exploit existing knowledge, discourage open ended studies, and are hugely time consuming. They are also new: before 1970, few researchers wrote proposals. Now they are effectively mandatory.

Globally, the 20th century was dominated by some 500 Nobel prizewinning academics who explored new concepts, leading to such discoveries as nuclear power, penicillin, lasers, magnetic resonance imaging and monoclonal antibodies.

We must find ways of giving unconstrained support to the tiny number of scientists with radical agendas. BP’s Venture Research initiative for supporting such people ran from 1980 to 1993 and created at least 14 major discoveries from the 37 groups supported. Almost all had been rejected by peer review. Its cost, including BP and university overheads, was about £20 million over 13 years. Identifying people to lead such initiatives will be difficult – but it must be done.

Donald W Braben, UCL; Peter Edwards FRS, University of Oxford; Dame Anne Glover, University of Aberdeen; John Hall, Nobel Laureate, University of Colorado; Dudley Herschbach, Nobel Laureate, Harvard University; Sir Harry Kroto FRS, Nobel Laureate, Florida State University; John Mattick, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney; Sir Richard J Roberts FRS, Nobel Laureate, New England Biolabs; Ken Seddon, Queen’s University Belfast; Pat Heslop-Harrison, University or Leicester; Plus 40 other senior scientists ££

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