The bottom line on blue-sky thinking

January 19, 2017

Although I’d agree with virtually everything in the feature on Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter (“You can’t order up a breakthrough”, 12 January), the need to push for even more funding of blue-sky research must be discussed in the context of what is actually needed from science. This is particularly crucial when it comes to science funding, which is and always will be limited and is often not unrestricted – ie, the funds are raised with a particular purpose in mind.

In a competition for a limited fund, for instance, how do you compare and rank one scientist’s blue-sky proposal above another? Currently, awarding bodies often rely on the reputation of such candidates – a form of rewarding “celebrities” for past successes rather than looking to the future.

If there is indeed an element of chance and serendipity in blue-sky advances, is having made such a discovery once itself a good predictor that a researcher will repeat the success?

Also, should targeted funding, say from a charity devoted to a particular human disease, celebrate the success of its basic science (blue-sky) research programme if it is based on a chance discovery that led to an advance in cosmology? More is needed of science than just “gigantic surprises and transformations”.


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