Blue sky research is essential but how do we ensure it gets funding?

Blue sky research is essential but how do we ensure it gets funding?

Many fail to realise just how important is blue sky research. Ultimately, everything useful comes from it: in the US approximately three-quarters of the work cited in patents is blue sky.

How to enable such research is an interesting problem. It has been argued that chemists are too conservative and largely propose incremental work, rather than ground breaking research. Is this something in their nature, or are they just proposing work they think will receive funding?

The current funding system does not favour high risk research. Money for this needs to come from the public purse, as companies can’t be expected to fund research that they can’t see any use for.

In recent years, public funding has had a short-term focus. Earlier this year the UK government’s 10-year strategy for science and innovation boosted funding for basic science. The plan envisages public and private spending on R&D in the UK rising from 1.9 per cent to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2014. In the shorter term, funding for science and technology will increase from ?3.9bn to ?5bn by 2008. This should go some way to help.

But the peer review process used by research councils relies on referees, some perhaps conservative thinkers themselves, and tends to come down in favour of safe research. This is understandable: no one wants to waste valuable funding on speculative research that comes to nothing. The EPSRC is trying to encourage more adventurous research by asking referees to rate each proposal on its level of adventure.

To try to capture the deeper blue sky research, the EPSRC has allocated ?2.5m for a specific call to support ’highly speculative research that challenges current conventions, explores new boundaries or adapts novel techniques to an entirely different field’ as part of its aim of increasing the proportion of grants that can be classified as adventurous to 10 per cent of its portfolio. The process will still require peer review, but with luck the approach will succeed in funding some genuinely mould breaking research.

A UK approach is all very well, but some boundary-pushing research is just too big for one country, apart perhaps from the US, to tackle and needs an international approach. Curiosity-driven or blue sky research is not currently funded at EU level as the European Framework Programme is aimed at promoting European economic competitiveness and providing social benefits. Will the proposed European Research Council (ERC) be the answer?

Quite what an ERC would be is not clear, but to be successful it needs to be new money: there is a danger that some governments will cut national research budgets. Also, grants must be awarded to high quality research, wherever that comes from, rather than spreading the money evenly around the community.

An appeal, from the Initiative for Science in Europe, calls for an ERC supported by the scientific community to ensure that the best research is funded, to combat the prevailing fragmentation of research efforts and to provide long-term commitment of science policy in Europe toward the development of its science base at the highest level.

This science base must be developed if the UK and Europe are to succeed as competitive, dynamic knowledge-based economies.

To achieve this, chemists must put adventurous, speculative proposals forward and push the research councils and government to provide funding for the work.


Karen Harries-Rees, editor