Never mind the blue skies…

IN YESTERDAY’S Guardian, Ian Sample highlighted the threat posed to British physics if the government maintains its inexorable stance that science should be aimed at money-making enterprise, at the cost of answering the big questions about life, the universe and everything.

[UPDATE 07/10/2009: Ian  Sample reports again on 7th October describing that the Nobel prize-winning chemist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, whose animated lecturing I’ve been fortunate enough to witness, ‘has also attacked government plans to divert research from basic science into projects that are expected to have a quick financial pay-off.’ See also David Mitchell’s wonderfully acerbic commentary on the subject.]

[UPDATE 23/10/2009: The Times has run an article describing how “Hundreds of eminent scientists including Professor Richard Dawkins and six Nobel prizewinners are campaigning against plans to put an end to university research that is deemed worthless….More than 200 chemists, physists and medics say the measures will mean universities will lack the cash to fund academics to undertake the kind of “blue-sky thinking” that led to the discovery of DNA, X-rays and penicillin.

Here, I re-post a blog I wrote back in April when I learnt of the impending deficit in basic research funding highlighted in the government’s Budget document.

Basic research

[First published 24th April 2009]

TODAY ‘The Scientist’ reported that the UK government is going to bail out biotech, investing £750 million ($1.1 billion) to bolster this and other ailing commercial science and technology sectors. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but at what cost?

Continue reading “Never mind the blue skies…”

Advertisements

Basic research…

[ratings]

TODAY ‘The Scientist’ reported that the UK government is going to bail out biotech, investing £750 million ($1.1 billion) to bolster this and other ailing commercial science and technology sectors. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but at what cost?

Well perhaps it comes at the cost of ‘basic research’:

Government funding for basic research, however, will receive no additional funds. Buried deep on page 130 of the new budget, the government called on the public research councils, including the MRC and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, to reallocate £106 million ($154 million) of their pre-existing budgets to support key areas with predicted economic potential — a plan which leaves some science lobby groups less than happy.

They’re going to move money around, rather than putting more into the areas of basic scientific research. In contrast, the US government’s economic stimulus package has fed money into the National Institute of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), between whom most of my US scientist friends are funded in their basic scientific research.

But what do we mean by ‘basic scientific research’? The term, synonymous with fundamental or pure research, is first and foremost a quest for knowledge; it has no specific end goal or commercialisation, i.e. a practical application cannot be envisaged. We might also consider research that may yield a commercial application after 10 -50 years to be basic research too (I put my own current technologies work in this bracket). Applied research, in contrast, is work that is aimed directly at a specific commercial end, such as development of a particular drug.

So what’s the problem in the UK, why are we bothered?

Continue reading “Basic research…”