Royal Society president Aaron Klug has warned the Government against over-centralisation in setting priorities for the science base.
Sir Aaron said this week that the over-emphasis by Government on specific areas of science could hinder progress in the very area being targeted.
He cited research on ageing as an example. Ageing has been targeted by the Technology Foresight initiative and Sir Aaron says significant funding will quite rightly be ploughed into research on some diseases of ageing, such as Alzheimer's. But he believes that real advances in understanding the general problem of ageing will not come from work on such specific areas, but indirectly from other work, such as research on the cell cycle, which is not well understood.
Sir Aaron said that the Government's aim of fostering better links between scientists and industry is to be welcomed. But funding for initiatives to support this collaboration such as the Realising Our Potential Awards and the Foresight Challenge should not be at the expense of the science base. Much greater care should have been taken during the detailed formulation and implementation of these initiatives, he added.
Government officials cannot dictate what kinds of research will generate commerical spin-offs, he says, pointing out that many applications have unlikely beginnings. He believes that there should be a proper balance between funding of "absolutely" basic work that has no immediate value and research that appears relevant.
Sir Aaron says that a cultural change in many research departments and institutions over the past 15 years has ensured that many scientists already appreciate the need to think about the possible applications of their work.