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Research and novelty
Applicability versus Exploration: have we got the right balance? 

Professor Pat Heslop-Harrison, Department of Biology
Date of delivery: 09/09/03 

The research of an individual research group lies somewhere on a continuum between the development of a product and the entirely speculative. Any company will explain how long and how much the development stage costs – tens of millions of dollars for a typical drug. Universities and Institutes lie towards the opposite end of the scale, rarely reaching the product stage, and sometimes pushing to the most speculative and exploratory end of the research. As we all realize, the uses that academics make of research funding is becoming increasingly tested against outputs – whether in press briefings like this or publications – and meeting defined objectives expected from the experiments carried out within constrained timescales. Outputs and timescales must be defined in the grant application which allows almost any scientific research to be carried out.

So where do academics work along the scale from application to exploration? I would suggest that the ways that grants are looked at now is meaning there is a bulge of good quality, interesting science in the middle of the range – but the ‘exploration’ end is being cut off earlier, while the point where industry will take up research is moving away towards the ‘product’. At the ‘exploration’ end this is particularly worrying, since it is speculative and long-term research, not least that carried out by our Chairman today, Sir James Black, that leads to major scientific breakthroughs and not just new products but new industries. I have no solution to this – researchers simply need a little freedom so they can operate within the exploration region. The difficulty of research moving to products and industries has an interesting and important short-cut, increasingly followed by academics and being encouraged by many Government initiatives: the spin-out.

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Last updated: 19 September 2003 9:46
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