Blue Skies Research is Essential

Cutting Funding Undermines Long-term Economic Stability

Lord Browne’s recommendation that the UK government focus its funding on science research with short-term benefits for industry has sparked a vital conversation. As the chair of the Mobius Life Sciences Fund, an early-stage life sciences investment fund, I agree that investment in areas such as pharmaceuticals is vital. However, I also must stress that even in these areas, funding blue skies research remains essential.

The first point in defence of blue skies research is that even the kind of industry-based research that generates short-term benefits requires blue skies research thinking as it is often, if not always directly derived from what was at some point very basic research without any immediate prospect of wealth generation.

A second, and closely related point is that it is often the serendipity and lucky accident of blue skies research that brings about the most important and impactful results. Research into foundational problems may require time and investment, but it is in its very nature to generate a multiplicity of results and outcomes beyond the answers to the fundamental questions it asks. Industry-driven research is focused on a specific problem and more likely to find an answer to that problem—a singular answer, however, albeit one with immediate commercial value.

Third, while blue skies research does not have the certainty (if there ever is such a thing) of immediate commercialisation of its results, it has significant and long-term potential in this respect. Because it 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. Without blue skies research, there is no long-term future for research at all. Industry-driven research then is at the danger of becoming nothing but problem solving and with an ever decreasing capability to do so.

So we must ask ourselves: if we know that blue skies research is the way to our future as individuals, nations, people, and a planet, then how are we going to fund it?

It is the role of private commercial entities to act as gate keepers of commercialisation. They are driven by a profit motivation to invest only in what will make direct returns. But they too must rely on prior work that has to be carried out before things reach the stage at which commercialisation is viable. 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’s proposals 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.

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.

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 comparatively little financial resources, and offers an opportunity for early-stage investment funds: they pick up where blue skies research leaves off but well before the commercial value of a discovery has been verified. 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.

Lucy P. Marcus is the non-executive chair of the Mobius Life Sciences Fund, non-executive director and chair of the board audit committee of BioCity Nottingham, CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting, and a Fellow at University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School.


4 August 2010

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