Venture Research, or ‘blue skies thinking’, has been responsible for breakthroughs that fundamentally alter the way in which human beings understand the world and their place within it.

Speakers included Don Braben, former head of BP’s Venture Research Initiative, Sir Martyn Poliakoff, Vice-President of the Royal Society, Fiona Murray, Associate Dean of Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management and David Willetts MP, former Minister of State for Universities and Science.

Session One: The History of Venture Research

In 1870, Max Planck revolutionised the predominant attitude that there was “nothing left to discover” in physics. Don Braben explained his self-termed “Planck Club”, those who undermined the establishment, challenged conceptions of truth based on previous discovery, and pursued scientific knowledge for its own sake. Perhaps the most clichéd example, he acknowledged, was Fleming’s discovery of penicillin: “a collision between an accident and a prepared mind”. Braben argued that the current system of allocation for government science funding is inadequate when assessing Venture Research proposals, in the most part due to the peer review system.

David Willetts offered a contrasting opinion, calling peer review “a great achievement” which rightly removes government from decision-making and minimises political interference in science. He cited the Royal Society, who receive funding from the government before identifying who to fund and said that the number of British institutions supporting individual research should be celebrated. “It is hard to justify spending public money directly on the ‘wild and the wacky’”, he said. Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroesthetics at University College London, pointed out that peer review was invented by the Royal Society as early as 1665.

Kenneth Seddon, founder and Co-Director of the Queen’s University Ionic Liquid Laboratory, called for an assessment procedure that would foster trust and encourage the “spirit of adventure”. He criticised peer review as bureaucratic, unreasonably time-pressured and too focused on “impact”. Peer review may work in the majority of cases, he argued, but it lets down venture researchers because it does not allow for the prospect of unexpected discoveries, “like Columbus, who set out for Japan and found America”.

Nick Lane, Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London, noted that since universities have become big businesses, it seems almost inexcusable not to run them on business principles. He also spoke of the pressure on scientists today to come up with results, even if they are incremental. Lane explained that research cycles and false claims such as “a cure for cancer is just around the corner” breed cynicism in the public’s attitude to science. Nobel Prize-wining scientific discoveries have an average lead time of more than 30 years, Braben reminded the group.

Sir Martyn Poliakoff suggested taking the positives from the Venture Research Initiative, and using them to think about how they might be applied in research councils. He noted that private organisations don’t have to justify their decisions to the same extent that public funding bodies do, and explained that UK universities hire researchers who then have to source money, whereas the Royal Society doesn’t pay researchers but covers the cost of their research.

Session 2: The Future of Venture Research

In the second session, Hywel Williams, Senior Adviser at the Legatum Institute, acknowledged that a key consideration for those allocating money is whether to support a specific project proposal, or put faith in a particular individual. Once this decision is made, he surmised, the key question is how to select the best of applicants or their applications.

Fiona Murray proposed that we should be optimistic about improving the allocation of funds. She called for a mixed portfolio of funding strategies, similar to good financial investment practice or venture capital, on the part of both government and research councils.

The group discussed the uniqueness of Venture Research as a potential investment; David Ray, formerly part of the BP Venture Research Initiative, pointed out that there is no prospective ‘impact’ or expected generated outcome (or even income). This means industry funding and other mission orientated foundations do not include venture research in their portfolios. Industries sometimes see scientists as a source of cheap “sweatshop” research, Poliakoff warned. The suitability of crowdsourcing and a variation on a ‘social impact bond’ were all assessed as possible ways to generate funding for venture research.

Other sources of funding, Murray explained, are not without potential pitfalls. She spoke about the need to capture the minds of scientists rather than skew their agenda, which can happen in cases of philanthropic donations. The amount of money given in an unrestricted way has gone down dramatically, she noted. In the last few years there has been a substantial shift towards giving to the life sciences. Murray argued in favour of multi-disciplinary collaboration and explained how it is at the crossover between different areas of science that the greatest innovations often stem.

David Willetts and Edgar Miller, a venture capitalist, discussed the differences between the university research system in the United Kingdom and the United States. The United States is often criticised for being too focused on funding incremental work, and the universities rely heavily on philanthropy. The US, however, not only has a higher GDP than the UK but also allocates a higher proportion of its spending to science.

Willetts spoke of the need to recognise scientific creativity coming from young scientists. If there is a peer review problem, he commented, it could be due to the age distribution of venture researchers. In order to pursue creativity, he argued, we need to be able to sidestep the hierarchy of the science community, where getting to the frontiers of the field takes a long time.

Reception: What is Neuroesthetics and Why Does it Matter?

Semir Zeki joined Hywel Williams in conversation to talk about his unique research into neuroesthetics. “Neurosethetics does not ask ‘what is beauty’”, explained Zeki, “instead it seeks to understand the brain mechanisms of love, desire and beauty”. His research looks at how a visual stimulus generates a state of the mind, bridging the gap between science and philosophy— two academic fields that for Kant and Schopenhauer were always inextricably linked.

The results of the research indicate there is no such thing as universal beauty, Zeki said, and yet mathematical ‘beauty’ or appreciation of a mathematical equation stimulates the same part of the brain as a ‘beautiful’ piece of art or music. However, the reaction in the brain occurs much faster after recognising beauty in a person, than it does for an inanimate object. He also explained why it is possible for humans to lose or be without the ability to see beauty.




Background Information

Venture Research in the natural sciences seeks to achieve a more satisfactory and complete understanding of the world. It does not seek to define its goals in advance of their attainment. Researchers in other areas of scientific endeavour often seek to justify their work by hypothesising an envisaged practical application. But predictions such as these tend to be avoided by venture researchers who take the view that their quest for the truth is a self-justifying adventure of the mind. Advanced research of this kind, as pursued since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, has insisted on its open-ended character and ‘blue-sky’ quality. But its practical consequences have nonetheless been profound. The way we think about the universe, the world and ourselves as sentient, conscious beings has been transformed by creative, foundational science. And although neither predicted nor consciously planned by venture researchers, a good deal of modern technology is a by-product of their work.

The current system of public money for UK science concentrates on research projects that involve an expectation of direct application and it therefore runs the risk of neglecting exploratory science.

In the last decade nine Nobel Prizes were awarded to scientists based in the UK.  But only one of these prizes was awarded for work done in the last thirty years. Genuinely innovative research used to attract significant sums of public money. No longer so. Since 1970, the number of universities has doubled but without any significant increase in public spending on scientific research. This seminar will explain the change in attitude towards science research in the last fifty years and provide examples of breakthrough research that simply would not have received any money today.

Peer review—disparaged by critics as ‘competitor review'—encourages research to look for ‘known unknowns’. But research which is original—the physics of Nils Bohr for example- subverts the established foundations of a subject. Original insights at the boundaries of human thought constitute an ‘unknown unknown’. Would quantum physics for example have been endorsed by an early twentieth century version of today’s research councils? It would probably have been scorned as a speculation that could not be assessed in relation to what had gone before. Having taken into account these intellectual objections, it is important to remember that  public bodies have to devise some way of demonstrating  objective judgement and fair procedures. If the present regime is unsatisfactory then we need to find ways of improving it. That reform will often involve refinement and adjustment to particular circumstances. This is particularly true of venture research  which is ill suited to demands for regular progress and  whose work cannot be tailored to suit the short term thinking embodied in a research council‘s five year plan.

Hywel Williams, Senior Adviser, Legatum Institute

Update—September 2016

  • The Uses of Beauty, by Semir Zeki [PDF]