Universities fund off-the-wall research from their own pockets

University College London, UK.

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The competition to secure funding can deter applicants from submitting radical research proposals, despite their potential for dramatic advance. At University College London (UCL), we have been running a programme for ten years that bypasses conventional funding mechanisms, using our own resources to open up new and unpredictable lines of enquiry.

A grant-application system such as that used today would probably have denied support to many of the twentieth-century scientists who fundamentally changed the ways we think. For example, molecular biologist Oswald Avery and his colleagues disproved the widely held belief that the genetic molecule was a protein (O. T. Avery et al. J. Exp. Med. 79, 137–158; 1944).

UCL took its lead from British Petroleum’s Venture Research Unit (1980–93), which awarded funding to a handful of applicants with radical ideas — simply on the basis of face-to-face discussion.

Despite vetoes by peer reviewers, the unit supported academics such as Ken Seddon, who became the United Kingdom’s most cited chemist for his work on ionic liquids, and Steve Davies, who set up a company to further his research into molecular architecture and chiral selection. The company sold in 2000 for £316 million (then about US$200 million) — some 15 times the unit’s total outlay on venture research.

Universities should follow UCL’s lead and use their own resources to set up similar initiatives.

Nature 562, 192 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06980-3

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