[Humanist] 28.170 on curiosity-driven research

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jul 1 22:48:48 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 170.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 1 Jul 2014 18:56:14 +0100
        From: John Tucker <j.v.tucker at SWANSEA.AC.UK>
        Subject: Sir John Cadogan on policies for 'blue sky' research.

[The following, forwarded from the Mersenne list, and although the 
research it discusses is in the physical sciences, the argument 
applies to all research motivated by curiosity rather than someone 
else's agenda. --WM]

The Learned Society of Wales today publishes a major report  
championing and celebrating curiosity-driven 'blue sky' research --  
formal details and link to a .pdf are below. The author is Sir John  
Cadogan, FRS who is well-known as an organic chemist, a former  
Director of Research at BP, and the first Director General of the UK  
Research Councils. He was also the President of the Learned Society of  
Wales. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cadogan.

His argument is short and splendidly made, and the paper is very  
timely because it is directed at governments and charities (and many  
academics, for that matter) that advocate and promote "strategically  
important" research areas, the exclusive funding of directed and  
"managed" research programmes, and the necessity of formal  
collaborations and networks of scale to do anything.

Among several points in the argument are:

(i) the fundamental economic and social importance of the phenomenon  
of discovering things that we had no idea were there to be discovered;

(ii) the inability of highly managed directed research programmes to  
make dramatic new discoveries;

(iii) the herd mentality that leads to a safe convergence of received  
opinion on what are strategic research priorities and what should be  

(iv) the collateral damage to the development of young researchers.

Let me draw your attention to the way Sir John Cadogan has collected  
as evidence the testimony of some of the UK's top scientists and  
engineers, looking back on their own discoveries. Philosophies of  
science policy and patronage draw on -- indeed, are based on --  
historical evidence and beliefs, and personal experience.

I would be interested to hear of any relevant scholarship that  
addresses the issues in the report and the development of research  
policies. Vannevar Bush's 1945 celebrated contribution "Science the  
Endless Frontier" must have attracted plenty of scholarly attention  
but hopefully there is more (such as detailed work in particular  
national contexts).

Sir John's paper is designed to raise contemporary issues, bring them  
into the open, and influence thinking. I hope it may interest some  
historians of science, technology and medicine.


PS. Sir John Cadogan, the author of the report, will receive the  
Menelaus Medal of the Learned Society of Wales at a ceremony at  
Swansea University on the morning Thursday 3 July, and will deliver a  
public lecture at 11.00 in Glyndwr D entitled ‘From Pure Science to  
Profit and Quality of Life’, which will draw on the paper published  
today. If you are anywhere near, perhaps you can attend this special  

 From the Learned Society of Wales

One of the issues which has been high on the agenda of the Society  
over recent years has been the funding of research in the United  
Kingdom and, in particular, the changing balance between the funding  
of curiosity-driven, blue sky research towards and the funding of  
directed programmes. The Society commissioned its Inaugural President,  
Sir John Cadogan, to write a paper on this important subject.  The  
paper, Curiosity-driven ‘Blue Sky’ Research: a threatened vital  
activity? is published by the Society today.

The paper questions superficial assumptions about the value of funding  
blue skies research; analyses and celebrates the impact it has on our  
economy and quality of life; and criticises the heavy contemporary  
emphasis on well-funded directed research programmes and points out  
some negative side-effects.

The paper concludes that the balance has swung too far in favour of  
directed programmes and calls on the UK Government to devise a funding  
programme, with its own budget line, to ensure ongoing support for  
blue sky research for its own sake.

The President of the Learned Society of Wales Sir Emyr Jones Parry  
GCMG FInstP PLSW, said “As the evidence gathered by Sir John reveals,  
undirected research has delivered many unexpected benefits, for  
example penicillin and antibiotics. So it requires sufficient space  
within research budgets to retain the potential for further unplanned  

The paper features testimony from many of the UK’s top scientists and  
engineers, including Fellows of the Learned Society of Wales.  
Contributors include 41 Fellows of the Royal Society (of whom seven  
are Nobel Laureates, one a Crafoord Laureate and one a Fields  

Professor Sir Andre Geim FRS, Nobel Laureate
Professor Sir John Gurdon FRS, Nobel Laureate
Professor Anthony Hewish FRS, Nobel Laureate
Professor Brian Josephson FRS, Nobel Laureate
Professor Sir Harold Kroto FRS, Nobel Laureate
Sir Paul Nurse PRS, Nobel Laureate
Professor Sir John Walker FRS, Nobel Laureate
Baron May of Oxford OM AC Kt FRS, Crafoord Laureate
Sir Michael Atiyah OM FRS, Fields Medallist
Professor Geoffrey Eglinton FRS, Dan David Prize winner
Dr Ray Baker CBE FRS
Professor Shankar Balasubramanian FRS
Professor Anthony Barrett FRS
Professor Sir Tom Blundell FRS
Professor Robin Clark CNZM FRS
Professor Dianne Edwards CBE FLSW FRS
Professor Sir John Enderby FRS
Professor Sir Anthony Epstein CBE FRS
Professor Jim Feast FRS
Professor Michael Hart CBE FRS

Professor Dame Julia Higgins DBE FRS
Professor Archie Howie  CBE FRS
Sir Colin Humphreys CBE FRS
Professor Graham Hutchings FLSW FRS
Professor John H. Knox FRS
Baron Krebs of Wytham Kt FRS
Professor Steven Ley CBE FRS
Sir Ronald Mason KCB FLSW FRS
Professor Ken Packer FRS
Professor Gerald Pattenden FRS
Sir John Pendry FRS
Professor Ole Petersen CBE FLSW FRS
Sir Rex Richards FRS
Professor Wilson Sibbett FRS
Professor Tom Simpson FRS
Professor Malcolm Stevens FRS
Professor Charles Stirling FLSW FRS
Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart FRS
Sir John Meurig Thomas FLSW FRS
Professor Kenneth Walters FLSW FRS
Professor Robin Williams CBE FLSW FRS

The Society wishes to share the paper, Curiosity-driven ‘Blue Sky’  
Research: a threatened vital activity?, with as wide an audience as  
possible in order to encourage informed debate.

You can read the paper here.



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