04: In praise of ‘useless’ research

In our cynical, short-attention-span age, it has become imperative to rally to the defence of pure, basic, long-term research. R&D isn’t just D. Without aggressive R, there will be no major, new or surprising industries.

Governments and business have steadily backed off from investing in pure research. A key moment, perhaps, came in 1993, when the US Congress cancelled plans for a Superconducting Super Collider facility in Texas.

Today, even a research project like Europe’s Large Hadron Collider feels called upon to say that one of its byproducts may be new science, ‘that can be applied almost immediately’. [1]

Article: Big Pharma, small ambition

James Woudhuysen argues that the biopharmaceuticals giant Pfizer’s decision earlier this year to close the company’s labs in Sandwich, south-east England, exposed the Lib-Con coalition government’s lack of any strategy for growth. Analysing the trends in pharmaceutical research and societal attitudes to it over the last fifty years he argues that:

The agenda in society today is much more about nudging you to change your diet or your exercise than it is about having hopes that they will come up with wonder drugs. That agenda supplies the real, overarching and dominant context behind the drive, by big pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, to get out of research.

Big Pharma, small ambition, James Woudhuysen, spiked, 21 February 2011

Letter: Mankind needs to rediscover its hunger for innovation, Financial Times

In the Financial Times Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel published one of the most important articles in the spirit of the BIG POTATOES perspectives since we published. The article – Our dangerous illusion of tech progress, Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel, Financial Times, November 8, 2012 – picks up on the themes in our Principle 02: Go beyond the post-war legacy of innovation. Though their emphasis is slightly different it is hard to find fault with.

Our reply has been published in the FT, slightly edited, as Mankind needs to rediscover its hunger for innovation, November 13, 2012. The letter as submitted follows. We have Tweeted about it and would value re-Tweets:

Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel are right that the bright future of scientific ingenuity we expected to solve our problems has gone missing (“Our dangerous illusion of tech progress”, November 8, 2012). Though this vision was technocratic – borne out of the necessity of a World War and the Cold War – today, by comparison, its seems wonderfully positive and ambitious.

As we observed in our 2010 BIG POTATOES manifesto, when boosters of ICT – the main game in innovation today – rave about ‘exponential growth’, they should really say ‘accelerating, but only for the moment’. In reality we are seeing the endgame of research into micro-electronics, computing and telecommunications conducted 40 or more years ago. That these innovations have transformed the media has made amplified our perception of them, in our mediated age. But we are blinded to the lack of investment in fundamental research that will lay the basis for future growth.

Previous huge leaps in innovation were international, mutually reinforcing and, critically, coincided with major social, economic and political upheavals, and the new hopes in the possibility and necessity of progress they ushered in. Today our emphasis is not on revolutionising production, but rather on finance, home insulation, consumer goods, and consumer services. As the authors note, the only huge leap proposed is a misanthropic and irrational leap backward ‘for the environment’s sake’.

In the second decade of the 21st century we badly need to leap ahead in creating new industries. To achieve this we need to re-establish the principles around which mankind should continue innovating.

Short-termism and conservatism in medical research

In The Life Scientific (BBC Radio 4, 5 Feb 2013) Jim Al-Khalili spoke with breast cancer pioneer, Professor Valerie Beral director of the University of Oxford Cancer Epidemiology Unit. Discussing long-term research she noted:

There is a problem with the current ethos of medical research. Grant givers want results in 3–5, not 10–20, years. It’s not the way medical research is going at the moment. The development of The Pill took place outside established medical funding (by a patron), as did IVF. My guess is that some wealthy person will one day fund an institute to do this research. They won’t publish every year in Nature or Science but they will get a Nobel Prize.

A related point is made in Tim Harford’s Pop-Up Economics, Hotpants v the knockout mouse (BBC Radio 4, 16/01/2013) in which he argues that organisations such as the National Institutes for Health (NIH) fund innovations that represent marginal improvements and relates the life story of Mario Capecchi, who studied genetics at Harvard but concluded it had become a bastion of ‘short-term intellectual gratification’. He went to the University of Utah and setup the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics. His work there on the ‘knockout mouse’ became the foundation stone for all gene therapy and he won a Nobel Prize accordingly. Harford notes that people such as Kopecki look like they are failing – until they succeed. He notes that institutions such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where Capecchi is now a principal, is more tolerant of failure than those such as NIH.