Roger Highfield: Science needs more blue-sky thinking – Telegraph
Let’s not lose sight of serendipity, chance favouring the prepared mind, etc, in research, eh? The history of scientific research is riven with unexpected developments that are often unpredictable and indeed unpredicted in advance. The post below on the richness of a research university also higlights these issues. It’s very interesting that the Wellcome Trust is moving to a new model – investing in people rather than projects. Investment in human capital is likely to produce more and better ideas (and blind alleys too – to succeed you must also be allowed to fail. A more general lesson perhaps is that if you invest money in glue development, you will end up with better glue; but invest in the fundamental science of adhesion, you will end up with all sorts of other possibilities that you never considered at the outset.
A quote – full article above.
Science needs more blue-sky thinking: The Government is wrong to pursue an “impact agenda” which aims to limit research grants to those resulting in economic or social benefit.
By Roger Highfield
This is a tale about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, a fairy story that began more than two decades ago with an article in this newspaper and whose happy ending carries an important moral message for science today. Its hero happens to be one of my chemistry tutors at Oxford: Ken Seddon, a man with extravagant mutton chops, a winning smile and an extraordinary feel for how to snap atoms together like so much Lego.
In 1987, Ken had a brainwave about exploiting ionic liquids. These substances were first studied in 1914 and had the potential to act as “super-solvents”, removing grease, glue and other residues with ease and allowing new chemistry to be explored. He applied for funding from a body now known as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, but the referees were underwhelmed. Too simple, said one; too complex, sniffed a second. The third muttered something about neutrons (he was staring at the wrong application). Their verdict: Ken’s bright idea was worth a gamma at a time when even alpha-rated projects struggled to find funds.