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Scientific research: the sky’s the limit

The head of the Wellcome Trust has raised a welcome challenge to the UK government's instrumental approach to scientific research.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Science & Tech

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The UK government’s short-term and results-driven attitude to science funding is jeopardising blue-sky research. So says Professor Mark Walport, director of Britain’s biggest biomedical research charity, the Wellcome Trust.

Professor Walport told The Times (London) this week that by ring-fencing funding for areas of science that are likely to bring quick economic or practical benefits, the government is undermining forward-looking inquiry. He argues that blue-sky research often leads to breakthroughs that are far more significant than targeted programmes of research.

Professor Walport raises some serious issues. Many great scientific breakthroughs have been achieved not through pursuing immediate goals, but through open-ended inquiry, where the scientists have no idea where their work will lead.

As American science writer Ronald Bailey points out, ‘when the optical laser was invented in 1960, it was dismissed as “an invention looking for a job”. No one could imagine of what possible use this interesting phenomenon might be. Of course, now it is integral to the operation of hundreds of everyday products: it runs our printers, runs our optical telephone networks, performs laser surgery to correct myopia, removes tattoos, plays our CDs, opens clogged arteries, helps level our crop fields, etc. It’s ubiquitous’ (1).

As science writer and TV producer Simon Singh has argued on spiked, ‘I think non-scientists often feel that science is about finding answers to problems, but this misses out half of the scientific method, as suggested by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss: “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers; he is one who asks the right questions”’.

The danger with ring-fencing funding is not only that we could miss out on unforeseen future benefits. There is also, as Professor Walport warns, ‘a serious danger that we will spend money on projects that are less good’. Instead scientists should be forced to play by the same rules as each other, he says, as ‘it is absolutely key that funding is used to support the best scientists with the best ideas’, rather than on the basis of what area of science they are pursuing.

Professor Walport has announced that the Wellcome Trust is prepared to put its money where its mouth is, with plans to invest over £2billion during the next five years to support biomedical research (2). He said ‘we will build on the progress made so far, continuing our commitment to invest in excellence by funding the best scientists to conduct outstanding research’.

The Trust’s commitment to blue-sky research is welcome. If only more people, particularly in the scientific establishment, would consistently put the case for the advancement of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, a real challenge to the government’s defensive short-term outlook could be mounted.

(1) ‘Precautionary tale’, Ronald Bailey, Reason, April 1999

(2) Wellcome Trust Strategic Plan 2005-2010: Making A Difference, Wellcome Trust, 19 September 2005

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Topics Science & Tech

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