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Blue Skies Research

Venture Research: A New Type of Research Initiative.

Venture Research presents a unique funding opportunity. Based on a proven record, it seeks to identify some of the great scientists of the 21st century. It fosters mutual trust, and offers total freedom at every stage of research selection and performance.    

Outline proposal
Major science-driven advances, such as lasers, nuclear power, transistors and the electronic revolution, molecular biology and a host of medical diagnostics, are unpredictable, seeming to arise spontaneously from unconstrained creative minds. Indeed, as if in appreciation, society seemed to ensure that for most of the 20th century most qualified academic scientists were free to pursue their own agenda, a freedom enabled by their easy access to modest funds provided by virtue of their employment. Many companies had similarly enlightened policies. Among many other things, society’s reward was a steady trickle of astonishing transformational advances.

Not surprisingly, success led to increasing numbers of scientists, and by the 1970s there were more than the funding agencies could reasonably support. The virtually unanimous responses from funding agencies everywhere was to scrap policies based on laissez faire, to oblige all scientists to apply for funding, and to use third-party expert assessment – peer review – to select the best applications. (Previously, peer review was usually reserved for grading applications for large grants or expensive equipment.) Over the years, the new system  has been progressively assimilated into academic research governance and today it is virtually mandatory. Most scientists approve of it, but there is no alternative. Not surprisingly, therefore, this form of peer review – peer preview - has acquired the status of a gold-standard measure of excellence, and seems beyond reproach.

Expert consensus-based opinion can, of course, be invaluable for programmatic research and for charting courses to attractive objectives – that is, for almost all research. However, it has a terrible flaw - the rare scientists who challenge convention and make major discoveries must cope with their peers’ initial indifference or outright hostility. Inflicting peer preview at the proposal stage would have been fatal to such scientists as, say, Planck, Einstein, Avery, Townes, Perutz, Mitchell, Crick and Watson, and about 300-500 others of similar calibre – I call them the Planck Club - whose work in many ways defined the social and economic development of the 20th century. However, their would-be successors today cannot escape it. But peer preview does not pass the Planck Test; namely had it been a requirement at the time, would it have approved the proposals of Planck-Club members when they were setting out?

Despite rising investments since the 1970s, and substantial increases in scientific numbers, there has been a dearth of radically new science. Pre-occupation with good progress in the mainstreams obscures this fact, but the shortfall in intellectual capital will have acutely serious implications for the future. Science does not lack opportunity. There are few fields that we fully understand. Science’s potential is therefore as great as ever, but we will create a 21st-century Planck Club and its harvest of unpredicted social and economic stimulation only if we restore the freedom that produces them. Many initiatives aim to do this, but they fail to recognise that freedom in this context must mean total freedom – such as freedom from veto and second-guessing, from the limitations imposed by the consensus of experts, from timetables and deadlines, from the necessity of having to move to a well-funded location, and indeed from any externally imposed constraints.  

This proposal is concerned exclusively with the rectification of the “terrible flaw”. In 1980, BP invited me to create and run an initiative – Venture Research – that aimed to identify future great discoveries whatever the field. Its objective was, of course, very ambitious, and since no fields were excluded, the initiative’s creation was probably altruism on BP’s part. Such acts are now rare. Whatever the motivation, we on the Venture Research staff used the freedom BP generously provided to recreate the climate of freedom and trust that existed for most scientists before ~1970. We soon realised that that meant discarding virtually every selection procedure used by the funding agencies. In the modus operandi we finally devised, Venture Research scientists selected themselves: we created the trusting and stimulating environment that enabled them to do so. Selection was by face-to-face scientific dialogue with our small staff – there were rarely more than three of us. We looked for scientists whose primary requirement was freedom, and particularly, freedom radically to challenge existing thinking; who had devised realistic programmes of exploration; and whose Venture Research would be their major interest. However, we selected people rather than projects; they could go subsequently in any direction they chose. Furthermore, applicants were not required to link their proposals to possible social or economic benefits, as is now the case in the UK, for example.  Our objective in all this was to create selection procedures that might have passed the Planck Test, and might therefore identify potential members of a 21st-century Planck Club.  Details of our modus operandi are published in my Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization, Wiley 2008.    

The initiative ran throughout the 1980s, and eventually selected 26 groups of researchers (individuals or very small groups) involved in basic research. They were all scientifically successful – that is they led to many hundreds of publications in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. This latter fact alone is remarkable, since every Venture Researcher except one was striving to achieve scientific objectives that their peers had declared impossible or irrelevant - for these 26 groups, we were the funding agency of last resort. In addition, most went on to make potentially transformational discoveries. Some of their achievements are summarised in the accompanying Table.

The cost of Venture Research over the decade, including all academic and industrial overheads, was £15 million. In 1990, BP decided to concentrate on its core business, and terminated the initiative. Despite the confusion following its closure, at least two major industrial developments ensued. Oxford Asymmetry Ltd, based on Steve Davies’ work, was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1998 at a value of some £200 million. Major chemical and pharmaceutical companies are now investing substantially in Poliakoff’s and Seddon’s work. In 2005, Seddon was awarded the US Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award.

Venture Research’s modus operandi has been further refined since 1990, and forms the basis of the present outline proposal. The intention here is to introduce potential sponsors to a unique form of investment. No other initiative at present fosters mutual trust, and offers total freedom during every stage of research selection and its eventual performance. Modest funds at a minimal level are required - the cost of a Venture Research initiative today might eventually rise to some £10-15 million a year – but requirements are solely determined by the rate at which, say, potentially Nobel-Prize (or their equivalent) winning ideas can be brought forward. Such ideas are exceptionally rare. Thus, the initiative’s degree of success would not be determined by the level of funds committed beyond the minimum. Indeed, any such additional funds would be counterproductive, and push research selection towards mainstream research.

Enquiries are invited. Scientists in the attached list endorse this proposal, in principle.

Donald W Braben
Honorary Professor
Department of Earth Sciences
University College London
December 2010
Tel: +44 1992 577 909


Outline Venture Research proposal

Proposal - 18 December 2010

Table: Some Transformational Discoveries by Venture Researchers

Mike Bennett and Pat Heslop-Harrison, Kew and Leicester.

Discovered a new pathway for evolution and genetic control

Terry Clark, Sussex

Pioneered the study of macroscopic quantum objects

Steve Davies, Oxford

Developed small artificial enzymes for efficient chiral selection

Nigel Franks, Jean Louis Deneubourg, Simon Goss, Chris Tofts, Bristol

Quantified the rules describing distributed intelligence in animals

Herbert Huppert and Steve Sparks, Cambridge

Pioneered the new field of geological fluid mechanics

Jeff Kimble, Caltech

Pioneered manifestly quantum states of light, including, for
example, quantum-enhanced metrology

Graham Parkhouse, Surrey

Derived a novel theory of engineering design relating performance  to shapes and materials

Alan Paton, Eunice Allen, Anne Glover, Aberdeen

Discovered a new symbiosis between plants and bacteria

Martyn Poliakoff, Nottingham

Pioneered supercritical fluids as reaction media, and subsequently, transformed Green Chemistry

Ken Seddon, Belfast

Pioneered ionic liquids as reaction media, and subsequently, transformed Green Chemistry.

Colin Self, Newcastle

Demonstrated that antibodies in vivo can be activated by light

Gene Stanley and José Teixeira, Boston and CNRS France

Discovered a new liquid-liquid phase transition in water that accounts for many of water's anomalous properties

Harry Swinney, Werner Horsthemke, Patrick DeKepper, Jean-Claude Roux, and Jacques Boissonade, Texas and Bordeaux.

Developed the first laboratory chemical reactors to yield sustained spatial patterns - an essential precursor for the study of multi-dimensional chemistry

Outline Venture Research proposal

The following scientists, acting in a personal capacity, endorse this proposal, in principle:

Angus MacIntyre FRS, Queen Mary, University of London;
Claudio Vita-Finzi, Natural History Museum;
David Ray, BioAstral Limited;
David Price, University College London;
David Walker FRS, University of Sheffield;
Douglas Randall, University of Missouri, US National Science Board member;
Dudley Herschbach, Harvard University, Nobel Laureate;
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, University of Notre Dame;
H Jeff Kimble, Caltech, US National Academy of Science;
Harry Swinney, University of Texas, US National Academy of Science;

Herbert Huppert FRS, University of Cambridge;
James Ladyman, University of Bristol;
John F Allen, Queen Mary, University of London;
Ken Seddon, Queen’s University of Belfast;
Lawrence Paulson, University of Cambridge;
Lewis Wolpert FRS, University College London;
Michael F Land FRS, University of Sussex;
Pat Heslop-Harrison, University of Leicester;
Peter Lawrence FRS, University of Cambridge;
Phil Woodruff FRS, University of Warwick.

Richard Cogdell FRS, University of Glasgow;
Sir Alec Jeffreys FRS, US National Academy of Science, University of Leicester
Sir Harry Kroto FRS, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Nobel Laureate;
Sir Richard J Roberts FRS, New England Biolabs, Nobel Laureate;
Sotiris Missailidis, Open University;
Steve Sparks FRS, University of Bristol;
Tim Birkhead FRS, University of Sheffield;
William Amos, University of Cambridge;



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