Scientists with their heads in the clouds

Tom Galligan discusses the importance of blue sky science


Many people are familiar with the use of blue sky thinking in the business world but fewer are aware of the notion of blue sky science, a free-thinking style of research which, although lacking a defined goal, can lead to great technological advances. Stem cell therapies, the world-wide-web and DNA sequencing are all by-products of this no-holds-barred method of scientific inquiry.

Since senior-ranking scientists are free to choose their own research projects, you might wonder why any scientist would choose to pursue anything other than blue skies research. Unfortunately for the research scientist, many scientific endeavours require large sums of money. The Higgs boson, for instance, cost over £10 billion to discover. Generally only governments or corporations can provide this level of financing, and here we have a problem.

Blue sky science’s goal is simply to further human knowledge, not to provide technology or health benefits. Sure, it often spawns fantastic benefits for mankind, but this is by no means guaranteed. It’s often impossible to know if a particular line of enquiry will change the way we live our lives or whether all it will change is textbooks.

As a consequence of this, blue sky research groups often fail to garner commercial interest. Large corporations want payoffs for their investments and there’s far too much risk involved with this style of research. Similarly, public perception of this research can be poor, making governments and charities reluctant to provide funding. Many people are of the opinion that scientists have an obligation to concentrate their efforts on providing for the human race, helping us live longer and improving our quality of life. There is little desire in the public mind to pour money into abstract endeavours that are not certain to provide tangible benefits.

Perhaps we must remind ourselves that science does not exist to make us live longer. Nor does it exist to make our lives more comfortable. These are merely side-effects of our propensity to question everything. Human beings study science because they want to understand the world. We shouldn’t need to justify blue sky research with promises of serendipitous inventions or miracle cures. Some of the biggest questions we can ask as a species are only answered by investing in our greatest scientists and allowing them to have free reign on the frontiers of human knowledge. Blue sky science should be able to stand proud as a respected and important human endeavour, and it is vital that we protect it.

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