Unpredictable results

October 27, 2011

Douglas Kell, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, was quoted in Times Higher Education as saying: "If I went to the Treasury and said: 'We aren't going to tell you what we are going to do with your money because we haven't got a clue and it is called responsive mode and please give us lots of (money) because we are good at biology,' unsurprisingly that might be met with scepticism." ("Poacher who rather enjoys gamekeeping", 20 October).

Although one might not use such emotive language, that is precisely what Kell and the other research council chief executives should tell the Treasury.

UK-based scientists acclaimed solely for being good at what they do (restricting ourselves to biological subjects here) have included: Peter Mitchell, Francis Crick and James Watson, Sydney Brenner, Cesar Milstein and Georges Kohler, John Kendrew and Max Perutz, and Alec Jeffreys. The industrial value of their unconstrained discoveries today would be measured in the hundreds of billions. Under today's rules, however, I doubt if any of them would have been able to persuade a research council to fund them when they were setting out because they had no idea where their research might lead.

The protection of scientific freedom and the UK science base in general should be the chief responsibility of our research council heads. Merely recognising that science is unpredictable is not enough: policies must be based on that inescapable fact. Indeed, taxpayers' money will be wasted if they are not. These are the battlegrounds on which to fight the Treasury, if it is necessary.

Research council heads are chosen from the best people. Fighting these battles should be their greatest challenges.

Donald W. Braben, Honorary professor, Department of earth sciences, University College London

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