Grant us the right to experiment

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If you happened to be at a party with scientists and you wanted to animate the proceedings in the shortest possible time, without opening any further bottles, all you would have to do would be to mention research grants. Nothing would be guaranteed to bring out anger, pride, greed, envy, bitterness and sheer inarticulate emotion than the current way British basic science is financed. You would also be inundated with enough anecdotes to banish for the rest of the evening any lull in the conversation.This cramped space is not the place for a dispassionate survey of funding of public sector science: but to my mind, two fundamental problems could each be summed up fairly accurately in one word apiece.

The first is "soul". Let's go back 10 years. Although the 80s were a golden-hello, yuppie nirvana for some, for us university scientists, the future could not be made enticing by a brimming Filofax. My particular department even faced closure for a fixed period each year, since otherwise the fuel bills would be too large. We hit on the idea of courting industry with a "workshop" where we laid out our wares. Of the many companies that visited, it was an American one (then the Squibb Corp) that chose to back our basic ideas, to the tune of pounds 20 million. We were saved: we were able to move into a state-of-the-art building where we had the facilities to forge ahead, for the subsequent seven years, with a variety of projects, all concerning fundamental mechanisms in the body, but nonetheless with eventual therapeutic potential.

Inevitably, the whispers started almost immediately: "But aren't you selling your soul?" If I was in a facetious mood, I would retort that everyone knew that we scientists had never had much of a soul anyway. Most usually, I tried to explain that the existence of a contract did not imply "contract research" whereby we were testing the company's products. Rather, we told the company what projects we wished to undertake, and if it fell within their interests too, then we went ahead.

Nowadays, in the face of ever-shrinking funds from charities and research councils, most of my colleagues have in any case put their souls, such as they are, on the back boiler. But the main concern over the now seemingly accepted exercise of seeking industry-funded research, is more cogent: could such enthusiasm be setting a trend away from "blue skies" research of no obvious commercial interest? I have a friend who does precisely this type of work, on dyslexia. He discovered that for a certain type of dyslexia, patching one eye of children, and thus forcing the other to become dominant, had a significant benefit on the child's reading age. But who would fund such research? What money can be made from selling eye patches?

But of course, there is no reason at all why we should expect product- oriented industry to fund basic research: if, using Francis Bacon's terminology, findings that shed light coalesce with those that bear fruit, then that is a happy union that should be regarded more as the exception than the rule. Which brings us back to public sector funding, and my second buzz word: "risk". Increasingly, grant applications are being declined because they are too "high-risk". What, I wonder, would have happened to a grant application that made the fantastic claim that a mould could combat bacterial infection? It, and hence the development of penicillin, would have sunk without trace.

"Safe" is a word more sensibly linked to "car design" or "sex": it does not marry well with "science". Every and any interesting scientific experiment carries with it the "risk" of not having the hoped-for or predicted outcome. What the research council mandarins seem to have forgotten is that if an experiment does not "work", one learns an enormous amount anyway. At the least, you see what is not the case; more often than not, a startling new possibility or phenomenon that had not been predicted presents itself. As was the case with penicillin.

Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford and Gresham Professor of Physic, London.