If it can takes decades to recognise the value of a breakthrough, Melanie Newman asks how research councils will ensure that basic science survives along with work that is focused on more immediate economic benefits
When Dennis Noble began the pioneering research that led to the creation of the first computer model of the heart he had little regard for the eventual enormous economic impact of his work.
"There was no thought 30 years ago that there would be an immediate or even an eventual practical outcome of the research beyond the general view that if you understand the world you have a better chance of controlling it," said Oxford University's emeritus professor of cardiovascular physiology and one of the pioneers of systems biology.
"Thirty years is not atypical of the time taken to go through all the stages from initial discovery to use in therapy," he said.
For this reason alone, he believes, it is essential to ensure that the seven research councils, represented by Research Councils UK, continue to give funding to basic, curiosity-driven research as well as to that which has an immediate or obvious practical or economic benefit.
"There must be a balance. There are some areas of research where focus on impact may be very worthwhile," he said. "But it must be done with a light touch and with sensitivity... not as a blanket demand for everybody to show the economic benefits of their work."
Such a light touch did not seem to be high on the agenda after the publication last year of the report Increasing the Economic Impact of Research Councils , a study by the Research Council Economic Impact Group under the chairmanship of Peter Warry, director general of science and innovation at what was then the Department of Trade and Industry.
The Warry report said that the research councils should "ensure that peer review panels contain members expert in identifying work of potential economic importance" and that reviewers should be trained to understand "the importance of economic relevance".
Reviewers should also "score the economic impact of bids" and applications for research grants should "identify potential beneficiaries of research", the report said.
In response to the Warry proposals, universities pulled few punches.
"The approach advocated is in danger of sliding into narrow economic utilitarianism," said Birmingham University. Cambridge University described the suggestions as "baffling", while Nottingham University said they appeared to "to fly in the face of the purpose of research within universities".
Birkbeck, University of London, pointed out that no amount of training for academic peer reviewers could help them spot the economic potential of proposals. "Venture capitalists expend considerable time and expertise in attempting to assess the economic impact of innovations with only mixed success," it said. "The idea that academics could imitate even this level of success after attending a training programme is not credible."
In its response to the consultation, published last month, RCUK was quick to acknowledge that the Warry recommendations were far from popular. "The need for research councils to continue to support long-term basic research was emphasised by many," it said.
"The majority of respondents," RCUK said, felt it was "inappropriate" to make any formal assessment of the economic impact of the so-called responsive mode applications for funding - those applications that researchers make "on spec" and not as part of any specific designated priority research programme, where more of the blue-skies research is funded.
RCUK said that it "wishes to emphasise that research quality is, and will remain, the primary determinant for research council funding", but despite this reassurance, what it went on to propose has not reassured everyone.
RCUK concluded that it would "increase the level of input to peer review from the users of research" and would revise the guidance given to applicants "and the associated peer review forms to emphasise the importance of the impact of research".
More details are expected to be handed to the Government next month as part of RCUK's first annual report into how it is working to ensure the economic impact of the research it funds. But, crucially, RCUK has not said that responsive mode funding will be excluded from the new emphasis on impact.
Asked directly about the inclusion of responsive mode funding in the reforms, RCUK head Ian Diamond would say only: "The guidance will be all about taking risks... it's about encouraging research in the country to be of the highest standards and, where appropriate, to have a real impact on economic development."
For Colin Blakemore, outgoing chief executive of the Medical Research Council, it is clear that economic impact is still being "vigorously pursued" by the research councils, but the devil will be in the detail.
In medicine, there is a risk that focusing too much on economic impact will divert money from crucial research in areas already neglected. The so-called orphan diseases - those that are very rare or affect only the developing world - for example, might suffer. "That shows the importance of thinking this through carefully," Professor Blakemore said. "Concentrating only on the obvious targets could delay progress towards other important though less lucrative goals."
Teresa Waller, head of research support development at Brunel University, said: "Peer review is a well understood process; any changes to it will potentially skew behaviour. How will quality and impact be set against each other - if you have a proposal for a high-quality piece of work with no demonstrable impact, how do you judge it against one of lower quality which might have a direct impact tomorrow?"
Ian Leslie, pro vice-chancellor for research at Cambridge, said that RCUK had not addressed the fundamental flaw in the Warry proposals. "Until we are any good at assessing the impact of research after the fact, it seems to me nonsensical to be assessing it before," he said.
Pioneer whose work changed drug development says: 'Today it would not be funded'
"For 25 years, no pharmaceutical company had the slightest interest in me," said Sir Philip Cohen, director of the Medical Research Council's protein phosphorylation unit at Dundee University.
Sir Philip's groundbreaking work on protein phosphorylation, the process by which a phosphate is added to a protein, changing its shape, has had a huge impact on the pharmaceuticals industry. Sir Philip and his colleagues have provided a new understanding of several major diseases, including cancer and diabetes, and a third of all drug discovery research and development is now focused on the phosphorylation process.
Yet when he began the work decades ago, he had little interest in its potential application. "I was interested in the phenomenon; I never thought it might be important from a medical standpoint."
In 1994, after 25 years in the relative research wilderness, the whole thing changed.
"Suddenly I was the best thing since sliced bread," Sir Philip said. "We set up the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy, which is the largest-ever collaboration between the pharmaceutical industry and academia in the UK."
But the present research funding culture could prevent similar discoveries. "In today's climate that research would not have been funded," Sir Philip said. "The space programme hasn't allowed us to colonise the universe, but it has given us the internet - a big payoff that industry could never have envisaged."