Basic Blue Skies Research in the UK: Are we losing out?

J Biomed Discov Collab. 2008 Feb 29;3:3. doi: 10.1186/1747-5333-3-3.


Background: The term blue skies research implies a freedom to carry out flexible, curiosity-driven research that leads to outcomes not envisaged at the outset. This research often challenges accepted thinking and introduces new fields of study. Science policy in the UK has given growing support for short-term goal-oriented scientific research projects, with pressure being applied on researchers to demonstrate the future application of their work. These policies carry the risk of restricting freedom, curbing research direction, and stifling rather than stimulating the creativity needed for scientific discovery.

Methods: This study tracks the tortuous routes that led to three major discoveries in cardiology. It then investigates the constraints in current research, and opportunities that may be lost with existing funding processes, by interviewing selected scientists and fund providers for their views on curiosity-driven research and the freedom needed to allow science to flourish. The transcripts were analysed using a grounded theory approach to gather recurrent themes from the interviews.

Results: The results from these interviews suggest that scientists often cannot predict the future applications of research. Constraints such as lack of scientific freedom, and a narrow focus on relevance and accountability were believed to stifle the discovery process. Although it was acknowledged that some research projects do need a clear and measurable framework, the interviewees saw a need for inquisitive, blue skies research to be managed in a different way. They provided examples of situations where money allocated to 'safe' funding was used for more innovative research.

Conclusion: This sample of key UK scientists and grant providers acknowledge the importance of basic blue skies research. Yet the current evaluation process often requires that scientists predict their likely findings and estimate short-term impact, which does not permit freedom of research direction. There is a vital need for prominent scientists and for universities to help the media, the public, and policy makers to understand the importance of innovative thought along with the need for scientists to have the freedom to challenge accepted thinking. Encouraging an avenue for blue skies research could have immense influence over future scientific discoveries.