Market effect clouds blue skies

June 21, 1996

Blue-skies research in Britain is being threatened by industry and the Government placing too much emphasis on project or market-orientated work, according to Nobel Laureate Sir John Vane.

Giving a speech this week to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the William Harvey Research Institute, Sir John said the threat to basic research in industry is "very real" and that the same "short-sighted" philosophy is now determining Government funding of academia.

Sir John, director general of the institute, which specialises in pharmacology, criticised the rise of the "accountability" culture that has been imposed on all types of science. "We are asked to justify the cost-effectiveness of research. What arrant nonsense! How can you put a value on an idea that works at the time it is being formulated and tested but will only produce therapeutic benefits in 15 to 20 years?" He said that medical researchers have to be visionaries devoted to long-term struggles against disease, with their horizons stretching over decades. "Academic research today is in a difficult economic climate because it is politically correct to support project-orientated research." He warned that without strong financing from both industry and government, the drug industry and medical progress will gradually decline.

Sir John, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine in 1982 for work that included discovering how aspirin works, said there must be Government commitment "both philosophically and financially" to the support of blue-skies research. "It must be protected as a proven and permanent concept from the vagaries of transient commercial or political pressures."

Since the institute was set up by Sir John, 42 PhD students have been trained there and 34 more are working their way through. "Science in industry would die without such programmes," he said.

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