Leader: Beagle 2 shows the true value of star attractions

May 30, 2003

University fundraisers all agree on the big thing that major donors want - to see their names on something that will last much longer than they will.

A look at libraries, business schools and endowed chairs on a typical campus suggests that they know their market.

But Beagle 2' s impending launch to Mars relies on a different model that may have lessons for others. Faced with a lack of official enthusiasm for the mission, its leading light, Colin Pillinger, became, in his own words, professor of public relations as well as of planetary science. His campaign, conducted via contacts with artists, musicians and others far beyond the world of research, led traditional and novel funders to chip in to the Beagle 2 project, itself cunningly named to link the Mars lander to the most famous expedition in the history of science.

Professor Pillinger's success will speak for itself when Beagle 2 leaves the launch pad. The leading space funders all joined in, and even some less likely contributors were tempted aboard, including the Wellcome Trust, more accustomed to curing diseases on Earth. And the positive light that Professor Pillinger's efforts have shone on British science - which has had its biggest media show since the Human Genome Project - proves that rumours of public indifference to research are ill-founded.

Most senior academics long ago added fundraising to their list of core activities. But Professor Pillinger's success shows that they are likely to have to reconsider how they do it. Even an official refusal to fund a major project is not always the absolute defeat it might seem, especially for energetic scientists who are willing to think big and recruit surprising allies.

Beagle 2 has grown out of years of publicly funded research in an excellent university department. But its parent, the Open University, does not loom large in league tables of academic research. Professor Pillinger's group, despite its current popularity with politicians, is the kind of team whose future is threatened by the moves to concentrate research money more narrowly. It is hard to imagine the older and stuffier universities that stand to gain from this process using Damien Hirst or Blur as key contacts for research funding instead of the merchant bankers and diplomats with whom they seem more comfortable.

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