Moon man seeks money for ideas

February 9, 1996

A sizeable chunk of Government spending on science and technology should go on funding a "big idea" such as improving air quality or eradicating a disease, according to a policy paper from the Association of Independent Research and Technology Organisations.

That way industrial innovation would be stimulated and the public's imagination would be captured, says association chairman Bruce Smith, who began his career as a consulting scientist to Nasa in the United States on the Apollo Moon programme and now runs his own company, Smith System Engineering.

"It is important that young people are inspired and the challenges demonstrate science, technology and industry as forces for good," he says.

His idea is for Pounds 600 million of Government money for science and technology research - which amounts to 10 per cent of total spending - to be hived off and put into funding three "big ideas" a year.

Research into each big idea would cost Pounds 200 million a year. Initially the money would come from existing spending, but if successful, new public money would be expected.

Some money might come from the European Union, which is embarking on a similar approach, funnelling money to specific projects aimed at improving the quality of life, such as cleaning up the Mediterranean.

Save British Science said it supported the idea of the Government identifying projects and helping to fund them, but John Mulvey, executive secretary, was adamant that the money should come from spending on defence related research or from additional funds, not from civil research and development. He warned that projects would have to be carefully chosen to avoid failure otherwise they would have an "unfortunately disillusioning effect".

Similar concern about the choice of projects was expressed by Richard Brook, chairman of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, who said: "I suspect the difficulty would be to identify themes which are genuine."

Professor Brook was all in favour of funding exciting research like the moon landing. "But in the end what does Nasa think it has achieved and where does manned space flight stand at the moment?"

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