Blue skies all the way to Mars

Having just turned thirty, I most definitely wasn’t around to see Neil Armstrong take those first inspirational steps on the moon way back in July, 1969. My parents were though, and to this day they remember exactly where they were and who they were with.  At 14 and 15 years respectively, and neither particularly scientifically minded, it is fantastic to imagine the impact this had on them, and on the other 500-600 million people (1) that watched on television.

Following the death of Armstrong last week, the internet has been awash with people lamenting the lack of progress mankind has made in space exploration since this historic moment;  considering that in 1969 colour televisions had only just made the mainstream, yet still, men were bouncing around on the moon playing golf, you can see their point.  We seem to have fallen a little behind in space exploration if you consider it in parallel to the of progression of, for example, the TV  – just have a look in your pocket, or consider what is beyond the screen of that tiny device in your hand right now.

The problem with space exploration is that it is prohibitively costly, and given the current economic woes of the Western world, who would fund it?  People want value for money and a return on their investments, and this is as true in scientific research as it is in any other business.  This may seem like common sense, though the consequence of this is significant.  If these values had been applied in the 50s and 60s, man would never have made it to the edge of the atmosphere, never mind to the moon.

Going to the moon was achieved because people had freedom to explore, and the desire to do something amazing.  There was no profit, no obvious impact on society – except to those astute enough to see value in just figuring out if we can get there, and believing that what we learn on the way could change the world we live in – this was curiosity driven science, or as it is now more colloquially known, ‘blue skies research’. This kind of research is getting harder to fund, and understandably so.  Scientific research is hugely expensive, and university research in the UK (2) is funded heavily by the tax payer (my PhD alone cost the taxpayer more than £100,000), and people rightly want value for money.

So is it worth it? Was spending millions getting to the moon, and is spending billions more getting to Mars value for money? Is funding any ‘blue skies’ research really worthwhile, or is it just a luxury we can no longer afford? It seems the answer to this question, in the UK anyway, is no.  The research councils in the UK, which is the arm of the government that distributes funding for scientific research is becoming increasingly focused on research ‘impact’, and if your impact isn’t obvious and no financial return is forthcoming, then your research won’t get funded.

Only funding research with a significant ‘impact’ may seem a reasonable way to discriminate between hundreds of applications for a limited pot of money, but here is where the most significant problem arises: how can you predict ‘impact’? How do you know what will change the world? Or bring in millions to the economy?  The answer is simple. You can’t. Chemistry Blog nicely illustrates this with discussions on the laser, ‘a physicists toy’ that became so ubiquitous, we use it to point at blackboards. Try searching Google for NASA inventions we use everyday to see the real impact of space research. Then we have graphene, a material that was isolated with sticky tape and what can essentially be described as a block of pencil lead – and stemmed from the ‘Friday night experiments’ (3) which have also given us floating frogs – not the kind of research that you could argue great ‘impact’ for .  The properties of graphene resulted in a Nobel prize being awarded to Geim and Novoselov of the University of Manchester, and now millions of pounds world-wide is being pumped into research following this discovery. NOBODY would have predicted this, and thus would not have initially funded it, and that is the significant issue.

If you hear a scientist bemoaning that they can not get funding for their research into ‘thisideaisnuts’, or read an article about £200,000 research funding for ‘whatthehellisthepointinthat’, take a moment to think about what you have just read.  The greatest discoveries are rarely planned, they are often consequence of doing something ridiculous/exciting/exploratory/crazy/stupid/grand/almost unimaginable (delete at will) – all of which could also be called blue skies research – just like going into space. So although we need value for money in research, scientists need the freedom to explore and be creative, otherwise scientific progress will become incremental, iterative and stagnant. This isn’t a call for researchers to be given free rein on how to spend tax payers money, just for those who don’t necessarily have a scientific background (and who are generally in charge of the money), to give a second thought to what really is important. Immediate impact doesn’t even come close to the unknown possibilities of the universe if we are bold and brave in our research.

Hands up for a (wo)man ot two on Mars.

(1) According to several internet pages of varying reliability

(2) Probably elsewhere in the world as well – though I don’t know this to be fact

(3) I was luck enough to see Geim give a lecture after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics a couple of years ago, so this is pretty much first hand information.

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