Innovation and inspiration

6 05 2009

A good article by Anjana Ajuha emphasises that innovation in science and technology is by its nature unpredictable.  She states that research should not be too narrowly constrained to the supposed needs of the economy.  The article further criticises Lord Drayson, the Science and Innovation Minister, for suggesting that spending on scientific research in the UK should be focused on climate change technologies and medical research.

Innovation to guidelines

"I'll be happy to give you innovative thinking. What are the guidelines?"

Ajuha cites as a better example the approach of the Gates Foundation who are funding research into finding a cure for malaria. The Gates Foundation is funding unorthodox ideas, including some wacky ones like giving mosquitoes a head cold so they cannot smell their potential victims.

While I agree with her general sentiment that stuffing innovation down narrow pipes is likely to be counterproductive, since discoveries often happen when scientists are looking for something else, I think she is missing the main point.  The work that the Gates Foundation is trying to do is inspiring because it has set itself the task of tackling and solving a huge problem, malaria, that kills millions of people each year. It is extremely well funded out of Bill Gates’ own personal fortune and that of another billionaire, Warren Buffet.

I suggest that the reason Ms Ajuha finds Lord Drayson so uninspiring in comparison is because there is no set objective which can capture our imagination.  In the absence of a goal that can inspire us, why should resources be set aside on a scale which can transform our society?  The best historical example of this is the Kennedy Moon Programme  which contains within it both ambition and an ability to galvanise the best minds of a nation.

The way that this should work is that we, through our politicians, should set a goal for what we want to achieve. The State then has a role in channelling resources and enabling legislation to make things happen. Real creativity comes from the combination of a goal with the resources available to make it happen. There would then be nothing wrong in choosing, for example, to make the UK a world leader in medical research, but it has to be because we want it, not because a government minister has decreed that is what we should do.



5 responses

6 05 2009
Steve Daley

I think there is another element that you have omitted to consider. In fact, the underlying motivation of Bill & Mellinda Gates research grants is to fund alternative scientific/technical solutions to DDT spraying. Since the 1980s, the use of DDT and talk of eradicating malaria had been silenced. Two decades later, the WHO reluctantly admits that it got it wrong yet still condemns aerial spraying of an insecticide which has been able to eradicate malaria in large parts of the world.

Malaria research is highly politicised and is based from the get go on poor science and environmental backwardness. Therefore, we have the curious case that treated bednets, indoor residual spraying and alternative research are consciously designed to find an alternative to widespread DDT spraying, whilst there is no political vision that puts human health above bird wildlife.

That’s not so inspiring either.

7 05 2009
Joe K

Two qualifications.

First, thinking even bigger we also need to be investing in pure science even without big practical goals. Leaving aside the cultural value of science, it is curiosity driven research that will lay the basis for the really big gains in 20, 30 or 40 years time. The specifics are necessarily unforeseen and investment requires confidence in the historical connection between progress and the broad advance of knowledge. The tendency to insist on foreseen goals expresses a breakdown in this confidence.

Second, as you say there’s ‘nothing wrong in choosing, for example, to make the UK a world leader in medical research’, but even what seem to be straightforward goals cannot be taken for granted. The presently fashionable fields, especially in the UK, are medicine and energy. I think it is fair to say that this is not purely a top down imposition. Most people, including scientists, think they are important fields.

Indeed they are. But both are heavily influenced by cultural fears. We have a ‘medicalisation of society’ in which the domain of medical science is expanded into many areas of health and personal behaviour in a distinctly unhealthy way. With energy the agenda is shaped by panic over climate change. Without a critique of cultural fears any grand goal will be unable to achieve its real potential.

7 05 2009

Joe, I agree with you to an extent in that your argument brings some balance to Rob’s original posting. There is no denying that science is driven by curiosity (and this is important and should be encouraged) because some of the biggest scientific discoveries have fallen upon us in that vein, such as Newton’s discovery of gravity or Einstein’s relativity theory etc. Personally though, I’m not entirely sure that we can assume investment into pure science in a blanket fashion, because there is much environmental and green energy research going on perhaps in the name of pure science yet with very little yield in terms of what we should be aiming for – e.g. lifting millions out of poverty (you allude to this misplaced agenda in your comment). So whilst I wouldn’t preclude investment into pure science, I don’t think it is against the historical grain of science and the broader advancement of knowledge to have some focus. There is most definitely still a point to be made for science driven by goals such as finding the solution to a problem e.g. discovering a vaccine for small pox, which killed millions during the 20th century but is now totally wiped out; or how in the Victorian age, Britain became a pioneer in urban planning and the sciences of public health.

Also, it is not necessarily the case that Rob’s tendency to insist on foreseeable goals equates to a lack of confidence in the connection between progress and knowledge advancement. In fact, his emphasis is quite the opposite and hence the citation of Kennedy’s moon speech which is equivalent to saying let’s have a goal and let’s be brave “we want to go to the moon”, a grand ambition for those times and along the way, beyond and because they went to the moon, they discovered so many things and found the solutions to many more – unforeseen results.

2 02 2010
Innovation and inspiration-part 2 « UK After The Recession

[…] blog has long argued that the UK requires a radical change for the better in its approach to innovation. I am delighted […]

11 06 2010
Finding water on the Moon, an inspiration to us all « UK After The Recession

[…] F Kennedy understood, space travel has many potential economic benefits and acts as a huge boost to innovation, but its capacity to uplift and inspire stands above all of that. For an emerging country like […]

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