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Call for university scientists to be given freedom to discover.

Byline: Gareth Evans Education Editor

TOO much emphasis is placed on agenda-driven university research and there is insu-cient opportunity for undirected discovery, according to one of Wales' most distinguished scientists.

Swansea-born Professor Sir John Cadogan believes there is an increasing imbalance in favour of directed research programmes - those conducted with a specic goal in mind - relative to undirected, curiosity-driven "blue sky" research in which scientists are given greater freedom to experiment.

In his paper on the issue, commissioned by Wales' Learned Society of which he was inaugural president, Sir John calls on the UK Government to devise a funding programme, with its own budget line, to ensure ongoing support for blue sky research.

He warns that contraction of blue sky research reduces the probability of discovering new knowledge and will create an environment in which the next generation of scientists will become short-term practitioners "driven solely by what are perceived to be user-needs of the day".

He says any knowledgeable industrialist will tell you that industry depends on the university science base to "make discoveries that noone knows need to be discovered - discoveries outside the box, so to speak".

Sir John's paper is underpinned by contributions from 41 fellows of the Royal Society, which exists to promote excellence in science, and he believes their support for blue sky research is collectively so powerful it could stand alone without trailing arguments.

Among an impressive list of contributors were Nobel Laureates Professor Sir Andre Geim, Professor Sir John Gurdon, Professor Anthony Hewish, Professor Brian Josephson, Professor Sir Harold Kroto, Professor Sir John Walker and Sir Paul Nurse.

Sir John said: "Over the last 15 years the UK science budget has grown signicantly, and successive Governments should be congratulated on this. But government and research council direction has increased too.

"It is completely acceptable for government to demand evidence that the taxpayers' money is being spent in ways which will return benet to the nation.

"However, government must also accept without challenge that the socio-economic advancement of humankind has its roots in science and technology, and that much of that has been curiosity-driven."

Sir John explains that the world's great breakthroughs - like penicillin and antibiotics - have come from the "unconstrained ideas and observations of scientists and not a programme chosen by a committee".

He adds that George Gray, pioneer of the properties of liquid crystals, did not have "at screen television in mind as he carried out what turned out to be seminal work in the eld.

""e conclusion of this paper is not that we should have directed programmes, but that the balance has swung too far in their favour," said Sir John.

""is reduces the probability of discovering new knowledge with the further downside that the next generation of scientists will become short-term practitioners driven solely by what are perceived to be userneeds of the day. ""e UK Government's Chief Scientic Adviser and the director general for knowledge and innovation should be charged with devising a funding programme, with its own budget line, to ensure ongoing support for blue sky research for its own sake, rather than tie it to some Grand Challenge or other.

"Other countries will always beat the UK when it comes to low-cost, derivative manufacturing.

"We can only survive, let alone win, by being leaders in discovery and its subsequent application at the highest technological level.

"Not to strongly support curiosity-driven research is ridiculous."


There is a place for both directed and undirected research at universities, says Professor Sir John Cadogan
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 24, 2014
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