Next week sees the first Nesta fellowships -no-strings-attached grants for people with good ideas but too little time to pursue them. Anne Sebba offers an exclusive preview.
The United Kingdom may have given birth to some of the world's great thinkers, artists, scientists and inventors, but in recent years it has often been sceptical of new ideas, forcing many of the brightest minds to pursue their interests in a "can-do" culture abroad. Academics who do chase research awards at home often have to shoehorn their ideas to suit the agendas of relevant funding bodies, or find that the strings attached to project money stifle creativity.
But suddenly, just as a recent survey has revealed that more than half of those who work in Britain's universities are on the brink of stress-related depression from overwork, along comes a fairy godmother, Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), whose stated aim is to liberate trapped talent wherever it is found.
"It's miraculous: just the sort of thing one dreams of," says author and professor W. G. Sebald, one of the recipients of the first Nesta fellowships, to be officially announced next week.
The 23 awards are worth Pounds 2.4 million in total and include scientists, poets, writers, film-makers, designers, educators, engineers and a surgeon. Their only common bond is "exceptional creative potential".
Lord David Puttnam, chairman of the Nesta trustees, says: "The point was to find people who were working across the old divisions of art, technology and science, to find linkages. We've achieved more than we could possibly have hoped for in a year, and all our worries about whether we would get enough nominations or whether they would all be from one region simply have not materialised. We really have not produced all the usual suspects.
"If I had to select one field in particular to promote it would be the public understanding of science, helping to communicate complex ideas simply. If the David Attenborough of 2010 came to prominence through Nesta I'd be very proud," he adds.
Nesta, set up in 1998, has an annual income of about Pounds 10 million derived from a lottery grant. Individuals cannot themselves apply for a fellowship but must be proposed by one of nearly 100 nominators across the country whose identity is secret. One fellowship, worth Pounds 72,000 over three years, has been awarded to a young man who left school at 16 and has worked as a baker, warehouseman, circus juggler, prop-maker and cleaner but has an original approach to design and problem solving. Nesta believes his award could give him the opportunity to establish a contemporary design company.