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Lucy Marcus: Blue skies research

Pivot Points is a monthly column by EuroScientist writer David Bradley.

Lucy Marcus is Founder and CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting, Ltd, a company that endeavours to foster sustainable success for funding organisations. She is non-executive chair of the Mobius Life Sciences Fund and chair of the audit committee for BioCity Nottingham. She talked to David Bradley about the downside to science spending cuts in the UK.

Why shouldn’t the government make cuts?

The UK government is recommending that science research should “abandon work that is ‘neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding’ as part of the UK’s austerity drive. Blue skies research is essential and cannot be consigned to the scrapheap for short-term savings; without it, we risk long-term economic stability.

So, we should be encouraging blue skies thinking rather than stifling it?

It is often the serendipity of blue skies research that brings about the most important results. Foundational research needs time and investment, but by its very nature it can produce outcomes way beyond the answers to questions it asks.

How can blue skies research be profitable?

Blue skies research does not have the certainty of immediate commercialisation but it underpins the kind of industry research driven by more short-term considerations. If we don’t invest in blue skies research we even run the risk of destroying the foundations on which research for short-term benefits is built.

How logical is current government thinking on science funding?

The heated debate generated by Lord Browne and now Vince Cable would seem to indicate that it is either government-funded or not funded at all. This is, of course, a false dichotomy as research has been funded from different sources for many years including large corporates, governments, charitable trusts, and all in partnership with universities and research centres, venture capitalists and angel investors.

Without blue skies funding, what is the future of research?

Without blue skies research there is no long-term future for research at all and industry-led research will become nothing more than problem solving and decreasingly capable in that regard too.

Aren’t funding cuts inevitable?

Interviews with scientists in the Journal of Biomedical Discovery and Collaboration, warned that a more narrowly focused research assessment regime causes scientists to choose safe topics over more speculative ones in an effort to get funding. The article also suggests that greater restrictions on funding would cause scientists to stay firmly within their specialisations, reducing the scope for broader, more interdisciplinary investigations.

Scientists are gathtering at the Treasury on Saturday 8th October 2011 to protest against planned spending cuts to science in the UK. Visit the Science is Vital website for more information.

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