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Blue Skies Research

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Blue Skies Research


In 1987, The American economist Robert M Solow won the NobelPrize for Economics when he proved that some 90% of economic growth stems from "technical change", as he called it, rather than the trinity of capital, resources and labour as had previously been assumed when he started work in the 1950s. Nowadays, the most reliable route to technical change is through science. One might expect, therefore, that the-powers-that-be would be careful to preserve the sources of new science. Instead, they increasingly subject them to constraints designed to enhance efficiency and accountability. The consequences of these ill-considered actions could threaten the very future of civilization.

Before about 1970, tenured academics were usually endowed with modest funding so that they could tackle any problem that interested them without reference to anyone. Academics could therefore readily satisfy their curiosity free from external constraints. Many industrial scientists were similarly free. Consequently, there was no need to distinguish Blue Skies Research from other types of research. Creativity already had maximal support. After that fatefull date, however, unconditional sources of funds became increasingly difficult to find. Today, they are virtually nonexistent. For the first time in science’s long history researchers must now submit their proposals in writing to a funding agency. In turn, the agencies then routinely subject them to an arcane set of tests - peer review - designed to flag what they perceive as the best, expecting thereby that the rest will probably be lost.

These well-intentioned changes have created lumbering bureaucracies to ensure compliance. They have also inhibited challenges to convention and exploration outside the mainstreams. This is most unfortunate because the great discoveries that transformed the 20th century came out of the blue. There was no demand for them.

The work of such great scientists as Planck, Einstein, Rutherford, Fleming, Avery, Perutz, Crick and Watson Townes, McClintock, Black, and perhaps ~ 300 more of similar calibre - I call them the Planck Club - transformed the 20th century, and spawned huge levels of economic growth. Life without them would be unthinkable.

Nevertheless, their would-be successors are now unlikely to get funded because their radical ideas are unlikely to impress their peers before they have been confirmed. Consequently, there has been a dearth of major scientific discoveries in recent decades. We are living off the seedcorn. That can only have one outcome.

My good friend, the wizard, whom I meet occasionally in my dreams, explained all this to me recently using a somewhat different emphasis, as you can see in The wizard's warning.

If civilization is to survive, it is vital that we begin to create a 21st century Planck Club. We cannot know, of course, what major discoveries they might make. There is therefore an urgent need to estabablish Blue Skies Research initiatives that would be worthy of the name. Unfortunately, woolly thinking abounds. The concept of Blue Skies can surely only have meaning if the research it enables is totally free from external constraint. This means that selection procedures must pass what I call the Planck Test, that is it could reasonably be assumed that they would have led to the support of Planck Club members when they were starting out. But funding agencies seem determined to base selection procedures on peer review, which is perhaps the most severe external constraint ever devised. It was only rarely used before ~ 1970, and then only for expensive projects

There is at least one successful way of going about this. Venture Research - that is our Blue Skies Research initiative - was set up by myself - Donald W Braben - with BP sponsorship. It ran for ten years throughout the 1980s. It was Planck-Test compliant, so to speak. In particular, it did not use peer review. It was very successful. It would also seem to have uncovered a way of sponsoring low-risk, high-reward research, an apparently self-contradictory concept that was nevertheless once pioneered by Planck Club members, of course. Some of its successes are given in the Table .

However, its resuscitation requires imaginative and far sighted sponsorship, and the national funding agencies generally have shown little interest in such an initiative. However, the Provost of University College London, Malcolm Grant, agreed in December 2008 to set up a Provost's Venture Research Prize that takes a first step in this directon. The initiative is confined to researchers at UCL at present, but we hope that other universities will join this imaginative scheme. In addition, the US National Science Board, the governing body for the National Science Foundation, set up in 2005 a Task Force on Transformative Research on which I served. The Task Force Report was published in 2007. It recommended the setting up a Transformative Research initiative (Venture Research by another name), but has yet (as of January 2009) to make progress.

These issues are discussed in more depth in two recent books published by John Wiley and Sons Inc:

  • Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization (2008).
  • Pioneering Research: A Risk Worth Taking, (2004)
The earlier book was reviewed in Nature, 27 January 2005, p361 (reproduced by permission) - and there is more information on both books at the Wiley website. Some recent articles focus on specific aspects of the book. A New Scientist article might be of general interest, while another in Times Higher Education(reproduced by permission) might be of more interest to UK scientists. A recent article in Research Fortnight introduces the concept of low-risk, high-reward research (reproduced by permission) in sharp contrast to the current fashion for so called "high-risk" research.

Don Braben
Venture Research International
January 2009

E Mail Don Braben at don.braben@btinternet.com or telephone +44 1992 577 909.

This page last modified 4 January, 2011

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