Reach for the sky.

There has been a big shift in the way science is funded over the last few decades, away from allowing scientists the freedom to think creatively about what areas of research might be exciting to explore next (known often as Blue Sky Science), and towards a far more risk-averse, economically justifiable model. This blog is my attempt to get to grips with this shift, and show why it might be a bad thing to swing the sciences too far away from Blue Sky thinking. 

 

Imagine for a moment that you are a benevolent and all-powerful King or Queen (I say 'imagine', because I doubt ol' Lizzie the 2nd reads my blog - apologies if I'm mistaken Your Majesty), you were crowned only yesterday, and right now, you're sat in your throne room, running your fingers through your literal mountain of gold, wondering how best to spend it. You've always been interested in the sciences, so you've announced your first donation will be to fund the most brilliant scientific ideas in the land.

In walks two men*, and the contrast between these two applicants is startling. So much so that you wonder if you're in some kind of cheap work of fiction! On the right you eye up a well groomed man in his forties, wearing an expensive Italian suit, carrying a shiny briefcase, and wheeling in a projector, and hilariously over-sized graphs with arrows all pointing upwards. On the left is a scruffy haired older man, wearing a yellow Hawaiian shirt and blue denim jeans, and looking a bit lost and completely out of place.

You say nothing, and the man on the right steps forward. He talks you through his thorough plan for how his crack team will improve the efficiency of blue lasers by 200%, referencing a series of projected economic impact reports, showing how this will significantly boost the economy across numerous sectors, from aerospace to medical imaging to computing. He shows exactly where every penny you donate will be spent, and exactly what his return on investment would be. It is a high return, and he's very convincing.

Then the man on the left steps forward and says, "I've no idea what we'll do with your money", and nothing more. You wait patiently, expecting some kind of punchline, but he says nothing more and your confusion only grows. You wonder if there has been some kind of mistake in the invitation. Nope, your assistant brings you this man's credentials, and they are astounding. His research group has published some of the most world-view-changing research of the last 20 years, and he recently shared the Nobel prize for medicine with 3 others for a technique for eliminating pre-cancerous cells. He was also instrumental developing a hand-held MRI scanner that creates 3D full-body scans in just a few seconds, which has saved millions of lives, especially in countries where the facilities and funds cannot support the previous generation of enormous MRI scanners (and it doesn't hurt that these mini MRIs aren't so noisy!). Despite all this, he stands before you, suggesting you give him an enormous fortune, with no plan.

You demand an explanation.

And he replies in kind: "Your money will go into funding our growing institute, and will bring in numerous new researchers, who will undoubtedly work on many different projects. But, in all honesty, I don't work the same way as my competitor here. I'm interested in Blue Sky Science, in probing the unknown and solving mysteries. When I set out, I had no idea we would detect that genetic marker which led to our Nobel prize. We had no idea that the hand-held mini-MRI was possible until a random serendipitous lab event ..." (You notice he looks a little embarrassed when he says these last 2 words, like there is far more to that story, but he quickly presses on) "... Each time our group has made a great discovery, we weren't even looking for it. We were exploring one idea, and stumbled upon another, which just so happened to change our direction, and luckily for us, changed the world for the better. If you give us your money, you won't be investing in an economic plan, you'll be investing in brilliant, inquisitive minds, and I am afraid I am not brilliant enough to guess what those minds will discover next."

So. What will you invest in, brave ruler? The guaranteed economic boom, or the brilliant scientist with no plan?

This (highly unrealistic**) scenario reflects a fundamental problem with the politics of scientific research today. Most governments would naturally want to spend conservatively, in areas where there is the greatest likelihood of economic growth. So what should a funding body do when presented with our eccentric Nobel Laureate above? You'd be crazy to dismiss him, because his record speaks for itself, but how do you justify spending money when you have no idea where it is going? Doesn't sound like it would be very popular amongst the voters.

I sympathize with the politicians who are nudging us toward a world of decreasing Blue Sky Science, but there is a strong case to be made for the chaotic nature of researching the unknown.

 

What has Blue Sky Science ever done for me?!

For example, that laser our well-groomed character was planning to improve? Its invention was completely Blue Sky, a mere curiosity to show light can be amplified and beamed in very straight lines. Its inventors would have never dreamed it would later impact microchips and eye-surgery. They had no clue they were ushering in the era of DVDs.

Or how about antibiotics? While today antibiotics are being overused to the point of self-defeat, their impact on our species can't be understated. Diarrhoea was once one of the biggest killers in the developed world. Now it's mostly just an embarrassing annoyance, largely thanks to antibiotics. No one knows for sure how many lives antibiotics have saved, but some estimates range between 80 and 200 billion. All because an untidy scientist accidentally let some culture get mouldy, and had the sense, funding, and time to follow it up.

More recently, in 1988, a few independent groups noticed a strange property of layered magnetic materials, which can be tuned to become either incredibly electrically resistant, or incredibly electrically conductive - they called this Giant magnetoresistance. No one had an application in mind when they studied the effect, but now it is used to read hard disks, and is probably happening in your device of choice right now.

Finally, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN cost billions to build, and probably continues to cost billions to run, and some would argue it is a colossal amount of money to spend to simply satisfy the curiosity of particle physicists. Well, their discoveries are ongoing, are already changing the way we view the universe, and who knows what impact it will eventually have. In terms of impact it has already had, CERN also set the scene for the development of the world wide web, which is what makes reading this blog possible. And If that doesn't make spending all those billions worthwhile, I don't know what will!

It may sound like I'm picking-and-choosing the best examples of times Blue Sky Science has worked, and I totally am! A lot of the time, Blue Sky research doesn't turn up anything useful at all. But the point is that there are things we don't know, and then there are things we don't know that we don't know. You can't answer questions that we haven't thought of yet without a bit of Blue Sky, without a bit of stabbing in the dark. 

I don't think anyone out there is arguing all our taxes should be shuffled into the pockets of plan-less scientists. Choosing how to best spend the money we have is a debate that isn't going away any time soon. But the pendulum in funding is swinging very much towards our well-dressed, briefcase-carrying, economic-projection-calculating applicants, and away from the scruffy-haired, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing eccentrics. No one knows what a slightly mad idea might lead to until we try, and it would be a real shame if we stopped trying.


* I generally try to keep things gender neutral wherever possible, but in this case I'm basing these descriptions on actual people I've met, so I kept them accurate to life ... with a little backstory embellishment!

** The most unrealistic part of the story is that the Blue Sky scientist wouldn't have a plan. From my experience, they always have a plan, they just throw it in the bin when something surprising happens!