Blue Skies Research

pasteur quadrant

Vannevar Bush

Blue skies research is scientific research in domains where ‘real-world’ applications are not immediately apparent. It has been defined as ‘research without a clear goal’ and ‘curiosity-driven science.’ It is sometimes used interchangeably with the term ‘basic research.’ Proponents of this mode of science argue that unanticipated scientific breakthroughs are sometimes more valuable than the outcomes of agenda-driven research, heralding advances in genetics and stem cell biology as examples of unforeseen benefits of research that was originally seen as purely theoretical in scope. Because of the inherently uncertain return on investment, blue-sky projects are politically and commercially unpopular and tend to lose funding to more reliably profitable or practical research.

Raytheon founder Vannevar Bush’s 1945 report, ‘Science: The Endless Frontier,’ made the argument for the value of basic research in the postwar era, and was the basis for many appeals to the federal funding of basic research. The 1957 launch of Sputnik prompted the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research to sponsor basic science research into the 1960s. By the 1970s, financial strains brought pressure on public expenditure on the sciences, first in the UK and the Netherlands, and by the 1990s in Germany and the US.

In 1980, British Petroleum established a blue skies research initiative called the Venture Research Unit, headed by particle physicist Donald Braben. Braben controversially challenged peer review as the mechanism for establishing funding, emphasizing the selection of researchers whose proposals ‘could radically change the way we think about something important.’ In 2005, Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust and former Professor of Medicine at Imperial College, London warned that excessive emphasis on agenda-driven research could jeopardize serendipitous advances in science: ‘The Government is right to recognize the importance of science and technology, but I think it is a mistake to try to ring-fence funds. There is a serious danger that we will spend money on projects that are less good. It is absolutely key that funding is used to support the best scientists with the best ideas.’ When UK research councils introduced a requirement that grant application include a 2-page statement on the economic impact of the proposed work, 20 scientists, including 1996 Nobel laureate Harold Kroto, wrote a public letter to ‘Times Higher Education’ condemning the requirement and calling for peer reviewers to ignore the additional documentation.

The Royal Society grants up to 1 million pounds sterling annually in ‘Theo Murphy Blue Skies’ awards to fund ‘research which is considered to be original and exciting but lacks a sufficient evidence base in the literature to be supported by traditional grant schemes.’ The UK-based Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) operates a program called the IDEAS Factory, intended to promote ‘blue sky, curiosity-led research.’ The international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) holds a ‘Blue Sky Forum’ every decade.

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