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Recreating the Creative Environment. Donald W Braben Venture Research International and Department of Earth Sciences University College London [email protected] University of Uppsala 2 March 2009. Universities before ~ 1970. Autonomy generally protected by governments

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Recreating the creative environment
Recreating the Creative Environment

Donald W Braben

Venture Research International


Department of Earth Sciences

University College London

[email protected]

University of Uppsala

2 March 2009

Universities before 1970
Universities before ~ 1970

  • Autonomy generally protected by governments

  • Tenured staff were usually given modest funds that they could use to tackle any problem that interested them

  • Thus, the environment automatically encouraged and fostered creativity without constraints

Universities after 1970
Universities after ~ 1970

  • Governments have increasingly interfered in university governance, and in academic research strategy

  • Universities treated increasingly as if they were businesses

  • spending “public money”

  • Creation of league tables

  • Trust between governments and the academic sector has virtually disappeared

Some 20 th century discoveries
Some 20th century discoveries

  • Max Planck: Discovered that energy is quantised

  • Albert Einstein: Photoelectric effect. Special and General relativity

  • Ernest Rutherford: Founded nuclear physics

  • Paul AM Dirac Predicted existence of positrons

  • Wolfgang Pauli: Exclusion principle. Predicted existence of neutrinos

  • Erwin Schrödinger: Founded wave mechanics

  • Werner K Heisenberg: Founded quantum mechanics. Uncertainty principle

  • Alexander Fleming: Discovered penicillin

  • Enrico Fermi: Built first nuclear reactor

  • Oswald T Avery: Discovered that DNA is the genetic molecule

  • Linus Pauling: Seminal work on the nature of the chemical bond

  • Dorothy C Hodgkin: Pioneered X-ray diffraction techniques

  • Max Perutz: Discovered structure of haemoglobin

  • Francis Crick

  • and James D Watson: Discovered double-helix structure of DNA

  • John Bardeen,

  • Walter H Brattain,

  • and William B Shockley: Invented the transistor

  • Dennis Gabor: Invented holography

  • Charles H Townes: Invented the maser

  • Barbara McClintock: Discovered transposons

  • James Black: Discovered how to design targeted pharmaceutical drugs

  • Sydney Brenner: Pioneered molecular biology

The planck club
The Planck Club

  • My affectionate name for a fictitious Club comprised of the scientists listed in Slide 3 together with some 300 others of similar calibre whose collective scientific discoveries transformed the 20th century

  • Indeed, the Planck Club in many ways defined the 20th century

  • I do not know of any member of that Club who needed to apply for a peer-reviewed grant

Academic research
Academic Research

  • Academic research has played a vital role in the global economy

  • Almost every 20th century Planck-Club member worked at a university or a similar institute

  • Will the universities spawn a 21st century Planck Club?

Changes to academic research introduced post 1970
Changes to academic research introduced post ~ 1970

  • Written proposals essential

  • Mandatory peer review of proposals: peer preview

  • Research prioritised

  • Timetables and milestones

  • The need to publish in high impact-factor journals

  • Assessment of university departments

  • Constraints thereby introduced are ~ outside an individual researcher’s control. They lead to exploration by “road map”

  • They reduce freedom and inhibit creativity

  • That is no way to reach the unknown

  • Loss of youthful leadership
    Loss of youthful leadership?

    • Average age at first tenured appointment

    • 2006 ~ 42 (US)

    • Up to 1960s 25-30

    • Average age of Nobel Prize winners

    • 1997-2006: 66

    • 1961-1970: 56

    Industrial research
    Industrial Research

    • Basic exploratory research has virtually disappeared

    • Time-horizons have been sharply reduced

    • Benchmarking

    Research funding
    Research Funding

    • Average OECD expenditure on R&D as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product:

    • 1981: 1.95%

    • 2005: 2.30%

    • R&D investments are increasing in quantity (a total of $687 billion in 2005).

    • Money is not the problem, therefore. But what about the quality of these investments?

    • Observable: A dearth of major scientific discoveries

    Some quotes
    Some quotes

    • Jules Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) “Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.”

    • Linus Pauling (1901-94) “I have always liked working in some scientific direction that nobody else is working on.”

    • Richard Feynman (1918-88) answering the question: how can one win a Nobel Prize? – “It’s easy. Find out what your friends are doing, and go in the opposite direction. But above all, enjoy what you do”.

    Science s breakthrough of the year 1996 2006 and molecule of the year 1989 1995
    Science’s Breakthrough of the Year, 1996 – 2006, and Molecule of the Year, 1989 – 1995

    • 2006: Proof of Poincaré’s conjecture

    • 2005: Evolution in action: Understanding evolutionary mechanisms

    • 2004: Exploration of Mars: Data from Rovers

    • 2003: Dark energy dominates universe

    • 2002: Small RNAs operate many cellular controls

    • 2001: Nanotechnology: The first molecular scale circuits

    • 2000: An explosion of gene sequencing data in bacteria and humans

    • 1999: Ability to isolate and maintain human pluripotent stem cells in culture

    • 1998: Evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating

    • 1997: Lamb cloned from a single cell of an adult sheep

    • 1996: Protease inhibitors and chemokines can block HIV replication

    • 1995: Confirmation of a new state of matter: Bose-Einstein Condensates

    • 1994: DNA repair enzyme system

    • 1993: Tumour suppressor protein, p53

    • 1992: Nitric oxide

    • 1991: Buckyballs (Buckminster fullerenes)

    • 1990: Manufacture of synthetic diamonds

    • 1989: Polymerase chain reaction

    The quality of exploratory research
    The quality of exploratory research

    • A new criterion for the assessment of exploratory research proposals. Quality here is related to the probability of achieving a high-potential objective. It is dependent on:

    • the nature of the objective (open-ended research ~ higher quality)

    • the nature of the approaches to risk:

    • minimise the risk? - i.e. action by the agency (~ lower quality)

    • manage the risk?- i.e. action by the researcher (~ higher quality)

    • the levels of trust (higher levels of trust ~ higher quality)

    • the relative value of money (fewer competitors ~ higher quality)

    • constraints on the use of funds (fewer constraints ~ higher quality)

    Venture research
    Venture Research

    • Its primary objective is to help create a 21st century Planck Club

    Ernest rutherford 1871 1937
    Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937)

    • “When money is short, there is no alternative but to think.”

    Venture research strategy
    Venture Research Strategy

    • Aims to stimulate unpredictable discoveries. Fosters individual freedom, and creates an environment in which applicants can select themselves.

    • Some details:

    • Funds should be "free"- that is available for use as required

    • No boundaries

    • No deadlines

    • No milestones

    • No peer review

    • No priorities

    • No specific objectives other than to understand or explore

    • Researchers free to go in any direction at any time

    • Risk to be selected and managed by the researchers

    • Above all, it aims to foster mutual trust and respect

    Risk and research
    Risk and research

    Risk ~ chance

    Risk ~ danger

    Research is difficult but it is not intrinsically risky

    The more we associate risk with research the more we devalue research enterprise

    Schematic a spectrum of research 1
    Schematic: A spectrum of research(1)





    of success




    Potential Impact

    Schematic a spectrum of research 2
    Schematic: A spectrum of research (2)



    of success







    Potential Impact

    Schematic a spectrum of research 3
    Schematic: A spectrum of research (3)





    of success




    Potential Impact

    Venture research 1980 1990
    Venture Research: 1980 – 1990

    Supported exploratory academic research in any field, anywhere.

    Total BP expenditure ~ £15 million

    Final number of research programmes: 26

    Number of scientific “breakthroughs” ~ at least 14

    Subsequently, there has been strong industrial interest in their development. Estimated value over the next decade ~ £1 billion.

    Some venture research discoveries
    Some Venture Research Discoveries

    • Mike Bennett

    • and Pat Heslop-Harrison: Discovered a new pathway for evolution and genetic control

    • Terry Clark: Pioneered the study of macroscopic quantum objects

    • Stan Clough

    • and Tony Horsewill: Solved the quantum-classical transition problem by developing new relativity and quantum theories

    • Steve Davies: Developed small artificial enzymes for efficient chiral selection

    • Nigel Franks,

    • Jean Louis Deneubourg,

    • Simon Goss, Chris Tofts: Quantified the rules describing distributed intelligence in animals

    • Herbert Huppert

    • and Steve Sparks: Pioneered the new field of geological fluid mechanics

    • Jeff Kimble Pioneered squeezed states of light

    • Graham Parkhouse: Derived a novel theory of engineering design relating performance to shapes and materials

    • Alan Paton, Eunice Allen,

    • Anne Glover: Discovered a new symbiosis between plants and bacteria

    • Martyn Poliakoff

    • Ken Seddon: Transformed Green Chemistry

    • Colin Self: Demonstrated that antibodies in vivo can be activated by light

    • Gene Stanley

    • and José Teixeira: Discovered a new liquid-liquid phase transition in water that accounts for many of water's anomalous properties

    • Harry Swinney,

    • Werner Horsthemke,

    • Patrick DeKepper,

    • Jean-Claude Roux,

    • and Jacques Boissonade: Developed the first laboratory chemical reactors to yield sustained spatial patterns - an essential precursor for the study of multi- dimensional chemistry

    The ucl venture research initiative
    The UCL Venture Research initiative

    • UCL announced on 11 December 2008 the launching of “The Provost’s Venture Research Prize”.

    • The Provost will provide support for approved Venture Research projects for at least three years.

    • The standard set will be exceptionally high.

    • Typical costs might be £100K pa. We will be looking for the research that could radically change the way we think about an important subject; and for researchers whose main requirement is freedom.

    • It will be restricted to members of UCL initially, but we hope that other universities might wish to join our initiative. Each university would support from its own funds the cost of Venture Research projects each would approve.

    UK based Nobel Prize winners emerging the decade that work started, and average per decade of real (2003) Government R&D spend

    D W Braben 2009

    Number of UK based Nobel prize winners per decade actual and expected if average before ~ 1970 maintained

    D W Braben 2009