Can a strategy take account of unexplored boundaries?

Last week the Science Minister, Lord Drayson, questioned how research council budgets should be spent. The BBC website has a report on his speech to the Foundation for Science and Technology.

He said,
 "Given that the world has changed dramatically over the last six
months…we have to ask ourselves whether the way in which we're
setting our science and innovation strategy is doing as much as it can
do in these different circumstances…I don't accept that identifying those areas which are best aligned
with our economic strategy necessarily means you have to focus on more
applied research"

These comments have caused a fair amount of alarm in the research community and on a similar issue, a number of senior academics have written to the Times Higher Education Supplement predicting such policies would lead to the death of blue-skies research in the UK and generally berating research council policies over the last 30 years.

The signatories make the point that government policies to encourage a greater consideration of economic impact in research funding is actually borne out of British industry's relatively low investment in R&D. They say, it is easier for the government to use universities to bridge the gap, rather than look to industry.

Aside from the general issue of blue-skies research, which i am sure will run and run, I think the idea of how you might set a direction for a science and innovation strategy is an interesting one. Predicting which areas are worth long-term effort is not easy, but funding in basic research now, may only have the potential for return in 20 or 30 years, beyond our ability to predict and strategise.

In our recent Carbon Crucible event we came across this problem. Carbon Crucible brings an interdisciplinary group of energy researchers together to look at low-carbon solutions. The group were given a road mapping exercises to try and predict the technology, political and social future with respect to energy use and technologies. Most groups found this was very difficult to do this for a horizon of more than 15 years into the future.

Looking at this issue from the perspective of interdisciplinary research, i think there are issues. Some interdisciplinary research is seen as applied and impact-focused. But a research agenda based on an economic strategy is unlikely to give researchers the scope to delve the unexplored boundaries between disciplines where new innovations are often waiting to be found.


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