Blue skies science, pie in the sky?

Lucy Marcus is the Founder and CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting, Ltd, a company that endeavours to foster sustainable success for funding organisations. She is non-executive chair of the Mobius Life Sciences Fund and chair of the audit committee for BioCity Nottingham. As the Science is Vital campaign steps up a gear and British scientists brace themselves for funding cut announcements from government, Lucy Marcus talked to 雷竞技官网 about the downside to science spending cuts.

You have quite a broad range of current positions, what 2-3 word phrase would you use to describe yourself professionally speaking?

Hard to put into 2-3 words. I am the CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting, a non-executive director, and chair of Mobius Life Sciences.

How did you become involved with the Mobius Life Sciences Fund?

For the past 10 years I’ve run a company that structures and restructures venture funds and private equity funds, Marcus Venture Consulting. When I met the team from BioCity they asked me to join the board and help them develop the Mobius Life Sciences Fund. I was attracted to it because it was an opportunity to help build a life sciences fund that fills the ever increasing gap in investing in early stage life science businesses. I was impressed that they recognised a need for a strong and capable venture fund in the earliest stages of life science investment.

We are yet to hear what the cuts will actually entail, what is it you object to at this stage?

The recommendation from the UK government that science research should “abandon work that is “neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding” as part of the UK’s austerity drive. As the chair of the Mobius Life Sciences Fund, an early-stage life sciences investment fund, I believe strongly that investment in blue skies research remains essential and cannot be consigned to the scrapheap to meet short-term cost-cutting measures as that would risk long-term economic stability.

Even the kind of industry-based research that generates short-term benefits needs blue skies thinking to begin with.

Secondly, serendipity often brings about the most results with the most impact. Research into foundational problems need time and investment and will generate a multiplicity outcomes. Industrial research usually focuses on a particular problem and finds singular answers often of immediate commercial value.

Thirdly, blue skies research is uncertain but also underpins the kind of industry research driven by more short-term considerations, not investing in blue skies research runs the risk of destroying the very foundations on which research for short-term benefits relies.

Apparently, the cut-off is going to be A*/A science research, but as the top layers account for 96% of public funding cash, removing the B/C/D is going to have little effect on the actual budget? Cuts have to be made but how can we persuade the government to use the statistics properly?

If blue skies research is the way to our future as individuals, nations, and planet, then how shall we fund it? Private commercial entities can act as gatekeepers of commercialisation because they are driven by a profit motivation. Prior work has to be carried out before reaching the commercial stage. It is the integrity of that work that must be maintained, and that cannot be maintained but with continued investment in blue skies research.

We must not abdicate our future to those profit motivations, as not all scientific discovery can be immediately quantified in its commercial value. The heated debate generated by Lord Browne and now Vince Cable would seem to indicate that it is either government-funded or not funded at all. But this is a false dichotomy. In the past, blue skies research was funded from a range of different sources-large corporates, governments, charitable trusts, all three in partnership with universities and dedicated research centres, VCs and angel investors. All of these now face serious constraints on their budgets individually, and there is a clear temptation to point the finger at each other when it comes to living up to what is a collective responsibility (and ethical obligation to future generations) for supporting blue skies research.

Some would say that blue skies is really pie in the sky? Why is it so important to encourage blue skies science? Blue skies implies a future potential for wealth creation, but most fundamental science will never be a moneyspinner? That’s not its aim.

Part of what makes investment into blue skies research less attractive is that even where it yields results that have short-term potential for commercialisation, an environment in which scientists and entrepreneurs can translate such results into commercially viable propositions is often missing.

Therefore, identifying and nurturing scientific talent and helping them to commercialise their findings requires recognising the opportunities that are generated by results of basic research and creating an environment in which these opportunities can come to fruition and make a lasting impact that is commercially viable. This is possible with relatively few financial resources, and offers an opportunity for early-stage investment funds: they pick up where blue skies research leaves off but ahead of commercial verification. They thus need to bring together experts who understand the science behind the idea and can judge its potential and venture capitalists who have the business acumen to vet business plans, fund them, and guide their implementation. By taking a lasting and active interest in the success of the entrepreneurs such early-stage investment funds support, they also provide them with the credibility needed for later-stage investments by larger venture funds, thus performing the vital function of a feeder fund and contributing to the long-term success of their initial investments.

Early-stage investment funds do not in themselves resolve the problem of who invests in blue skies research, but they can make it a more promising and less daunting venture by helping to contribute to a faster and more reliable idea-to-market process.

How does blue skies funding encourage long-term economic stability?

Late last year, the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced that it would change its methodology for allocating public funding for academic research from 2013, requiring 25% of the assessment of whether or not to fund a project to be based on whether the researcher can demonstrate a contribution to the economy or society. This could put a stranglehold on blue skies research, as more often than not, some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs come once research has been done and only then is an application found. At the same time, other traditional sources of funding for basic research are also drying up. Large pharmaceutical companies are suffering from tighter financial straits and many are depending on outsourcing discovery research or waiting for it to be done by small firms that they can then acquire and merge into their own operations. In January, AstraZeneca said it would close its Loughborough R&D centre with the loss of 1200 jobs and closure of key areas of research, including respiratory diseases. While organisations such as the Wellcome Trust and other charity-funded pure research councils, will continue to provide money for wider avenues of discovery, it will be on a much smaller scale.

Venture capital continues to play a significant role in providing early-stage funding to promising discoveries. When the viability of a biomedical or clean technology invention is clearly established, financing is available to support it. And with most industrialised countries facing steep public deficits in the aftermath of the financial crisis, their governments have to reassess budgets and make difficult choices about where to direct scarce research funds. Yet what are the potentially unintended consequences if there is no money to channel into the first link of the discovery chain?

There is some science (the kind that wins IgNobel awards that is fun, but where does such research (e.g. investigating how men dance, recently in the news) fit into the overall picture of science and economic stability?

Often there is serious research behind the “fun findings” that are shared to attract media attention. Human behaviour, biology, chemistry, etc. It is hard to know where the breakthroughs will come from, so we need to allow a certain amount of leeway.

Many inventions and discoveries are the result of circuitous blue-skies research, a field of discovery that is increasingly under threat in the UK as scare research budgets and tight public finances combine to skew funding streams towards research with a clearly applicable social and economic impact.

Blue skies research, areas of inquiry for which concrete applications are not immediately obvious, is an essential part of discovery. The internet was originally created as a means for scientists to communicate, while echocardiograms had their origins in First World War experiments using ultrasonic waves to detect submarines. A host of inventions, from cures to crippling diseases to the use of technology to solve problems such as the need for clean energy have developed serendipitously from broader, or more whimsical scientific investigations, resulting in findings that likely changed the world and, in some cases, saved lives.

There is a major element of short-termism, but cuts have to be made and the previous government had similar plans? What would you cut instead?

A 2008 article in the Journal of Biomedical Discovery and Collaboration, based on interviews with scientists, warned that a more narrowly focused research assessment regime causes scientists to choose safe topics over more speculative ones in an effort to get funding. The article also suggests that greater restrictions on funding would cause scientists to stay firmly within their specialisations, reducing the scope for broader, more interdisciplinary investigations.

There is a difference between explicitly abandoning support for blue skies research and recognising its extinction as a fait accompli after the fact. Clearly we need to be having a public debate now about whether we as a country value blue skies research enough to fund it. This will involve better communication to the public about the importance of blue skies research and, more importantly, communication of the awareness that if early-stage research doesn’t get funding now, there may be fewer potential life-saving or sea-changing discoveries down the line.

Part of this public conversation will also involve thinking about new ways of funding discovery research, or perhaps reimagining the roles of existing sources. The patronage system for artists and scientists associated with the Renaissance no longer exists, but perhaps there is scope for a new model of angel network more relevant to our era. One area that deserves reassessment is venture capital, which has traditionally played an important role in later stages of the funding cycle. While the primary motivation of venture funds is to make money for investors, it is reasonable to ask if those funds that have chosen to invest in areas such as clean technology, biotechnology and medical technology have an obligation to help scientists take a strong idea and help bring it to fruition in a concrete and marketable way. Now that a lot of the research big pharmaceutical firms were doing is being devolved and dispersed, these questions fall more squarely on the shoulders of those who fill the funding gap.

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Author: 雷竞技官网

Award-winning freelance science writer, author of Deceived Wisdom. Sharp-shooting photographer and wannabe rockstar.