Blue Skies Research

blue skyMost lab-based scientists will have experienced a serendipitous ‘eureka’ moment at some point during their research. My own came about half-way through my PhD and resulted in an unexpected publication. Many such moments have triggered key scientific discoveries which have led to crucial innovations. Though not in my case unfortunately…

Scientists are often said to be driven by a simple, fundamental desire to further the understanding of the complex world around us. This type of curiosity-driven research is commonly referred to as blue-skies research. This is not directed by a specific goal, but is purely exploratory and can lead to a variety of interesting and applicable surprise discoveries.

The scientific funding landscape in the UK is currently largely driven by the concept of ‘impact’. Policy impact, societal impact and economic impact are concepts regularly bandied around. The latter is a particular favourite of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne, who views ‘science is a personal priority’. His 2014 Budget, announced in the House of Commons on 19 March, included £222 million for big data, graphene, cell therapy and doctoral training. He also announced a five-year £42m fund to establish an Alan Turing Institute for Big Data research which aims to allow the UK ‘out-compete, outsmart and outdo the rest of the world’. The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) was given £74m over five years to expand its Catapult network with the aim to help businesses transform ideas into new products and services.

There has arguably been a move towards directed, impact-driven scientific funding in the UK. While the benefits of this are clear, many fear that this could squeeze out the potential for serendipitous discoveries. Indeed, two of the areas of translational research highlighted in the Chancellor’s budget allocations derived from such discoveries; graphene and cell therapy.

Funding blue skies research has been likened to playing the lottery. There’s the potential to spend a lot of money with no return; but when there is a return, the rewards can be huge. The classic, clichéd example of hitting the ‘jackpot’ of blue-skies research is penicillin. Most high school biology students are able to relate the story of Alexander Fleming when he noticed that bacteria weren’t growing in a small halo around some mould which had contaminated one of his samples. When the substance the fungus secreted was isolated, it turned out to be highly toxic to bacteria yet largely harmless to humans. It wasn’t previously known that antibiotics even existed, but penicillin and subsequently developed antimicrobial drugs have saved millions of lives. Would Alexander Fleming have been able to make such a discovery if his research priorities had been purely impact-driven?

Such a question is obviously facetious, but the lack of funding for basic research is a real concern. Of course, translational research is vital but, by its very nature, this cannot occur without the underpinning research to ‘translate’. Funders must be aware of this; indeed this is part of the argument for the maintenance of the Haldane Principle. This states that decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians. Arguably, scientists tend to appreciate the importance and relevance of blue skies research more and act to ensure that funding streams are not solely directed towards the Government’s priority areas of research. A number of these have been identified with the aim of furthering economic development and are collectively known as the ‘eight great technologies’. While they are no doubt vital areas of scientific discovery, they should not be the focus of all Government-funded research.

A varied and multi-faceted (as well as sustained!) scientific funding landscape is surely the best way to ensure that there is a steady stream of ingenious, fundamental discoveries to be translated into the technologies and economy-boosters of tomorrow. And there is most certainly a blue sky looming over that landscape.

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