Amazement at pseudo avenues for advancements

August 18, 1995

Opinion (THES, August 4) from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, identifies particular "avenues for advancement", the development of new concepts and capabilities, fusion of existing technologies, emergence of unsuspected links, and new frontiers. But what does this "White Paper-speak" mean? Do these avenues herald anything new, or are they a re-packaging of the council's long-standing objective - the support of good research?

The hazard of setting out pseudo avenues for advancement is that they give an impression that major advances can reliably be foreseen and planned. But young scientist readers will not be misled into believing that their pathway to high achievement, recognition and fame can be mapped out so easily. The achievements of physicists are exemplified by their development of such techniques as X-ray crystallography and electron spin and nuclear magnetic resonance. These were not a response to a defined set of "avenues for advancement". They arose from the commitment of first-class scientists to curiosity-driven exploration, and none of these techniques was seen as a contributor to wealth creation.

Brook and Clark assure us that the final years of the millennium offer dramatic opportunities for academic researchers. But can we be assured that the research councils have a mechanism for spotting and supporting the avenues for advancement of the next millennium?

DAVID WEITZMAN Cardiff

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