Blue skies and clouds

September 25, 2008

Thank you Kevin Fong for your cogent and inspiring riposte to Sir David King's comments on blue-skies research ("Don't knock knowledge", 18 September). It is worth highlighting that King's recommendation for scientists to focus on research that has direct and immediate application appears at odds with his extensive publication record over the past few decades.

A quick Web of Science search reveals that King has published many heavily cited papers in ultrahigh vacuum surface science, focusing, for example, on the minutiae of particular surface phases or the detail of reaction kinetics under ultrahigh vacuum conditions.

While this body of research has been immensely influential in the surface science community of which I'm a member - and, indeed, in the wider academic community - I think that King would be the first to agree that much of the work could not be said to directly address immediate societal or environmental problems.

Moreover, a large fraction of the funding for King's research has been awarded through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's responsive mode programme, whose raison d'etre is to support investigator-driven blue-skies research.

It is immensely dispiriting to hear an erstwhile chief scientific adviser and the current president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science argue that basic research is a waste of taxpayers' money. It is doubly disappointing for surface scientists such as myself who have been inspired by King's elegant and world-leading approach to fundamental science.

Philip Moriarty, Nanoscience Group, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham.

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