Thursday, January 14, 2010

Science needs more blue-sky thinking

Some Scientists seem willing to say or do anything to keep those research grants coming. Here is one who has a brilliant idea and was turned down. Go figure.
The Government is wrong to pursue an "impact agenda" which aims to limit research grants to those resulting in economic or social benefit.

This is a tale about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, a fairy story that began more than two decades ago with an article in this newspaper and whose happy ending carries an important moral message for science today. Its hero happens to be one of my chemistry tutors at Oxford: Ken Seddon, a man with extravagant mutton chops, a winning smile and an extraordinary feel for how to snap atoms together like so much Lego.

In 1987, Ken had a brainwave about exploiting ionic liquids. These substances were first studied in 1914 and had the potential to act as "super-solvents", removing grease, glue and other residues with ease and allowing new chemistry to be explored. He applied for funding from a body now known as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, but the referees were underwhelmed. Too simple, said one; too complex, sniffed a second. The third muttered something about neutrons (he was staring at the wrong application). Their verdict: Ken's bright idea was worth a gamma at a time when even alpha-rated projects struggled to find funds.
Ken was not discouraged, and was fortunate enough to find a fairy godmother in the form of the BP Venture unit. He was given a cheque for £250,000, and his windfall was written up by The Daily Telegraph. That article, in turn, spawned interest from the oil industry, which wanted a way to dissolve kerogen, the thick crud left over from refining, and from the British Library, which was desperate for a means of removing glue from ancient manuscripts. Read more.

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