Under the microscope: Why risks should be taken - Better vision

LAST WEEK I was able to indulge in a great luxury. While most scientific meetings are organised along fairly specific lines, where the subject is clearly demarcated, I organised a one-day seminar with eight speakers of my choice on any topic.

Usually even if the conference is general sessions are divided into areas of interest. All this compartmentalisation of subject is good for the cognoscenti but usually far too detailed for anyone outside of the area. The marvellous advantage of my day was that it did not have to be highly specific to my subject. Rather, since the sponsoring organisation was the technology transfer company of the University of Oxford (Isis Innovation), and since the delegates were a mix of academics and industrialists, the range of topics had to be very broad, presented as overviews.

Twenty years ago, there had not been a weighty accumulation of information about the brain so it was easy to follow what people in different areas were doing. Perhaps it is in the rosy retrospection of middle age that I remember those times and types of session as ones full of boisterous debate. Above all, it was such fun compared to the highly serious and strained atmosphere that can cloud discussions in these parlous times of acute financial restraint and hence of parochial bitching and political chicanery. I saw in my seminar the chance for recapturing, if only for a day, the heady atmosphere of that arguably more innocent time.

In retrospect two interesting features struck me about the day. First, that the majority of the research under discussion was not funded from the public sector, but from industrial sources. The second was that, remarkably, at least three of us had not started off as scientists. One had studied languages, another - perhaps alarmingly the neurosurgeon - had read politics, philosophy and economics.

Is there a moral here? Could there be a connection between the type of science that is done by people from unconventional backgrounds, and the type that is unusual enough to scare off the cautious public sector, yet exciting enough to attract those who need vision to survive? If so, is the natural conclusion that conventional science training is breeding a conventional science approach? And is it a Good Thing? I feel the essence of scientific research is that one is asking big questions, and thus taking a risk: why else perform an experiment where the results are more or less known? Curiously the private sector is more comfortable with risk than the public. A more positive idea might be that we ought to be alert as to how science is taught, in that we could communicate a flavour for the joy of the truly novel, of coming up with new ways of looking at things - as arts people have always done. Alternatively, perhaps that day was all just a coincidence, or merely I have a quirky choice of friends.

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