David Willetts, the UK's minister for universities and science, recently said that curiosity-driven research is good, and that the government shouldn't be too concerned with the economic value of it, which often takes time to fully emerge. Most researchers would agree, says Imperial College London researcher Michael Duff in The Guardian. "The discoveries and innovations that have had the biggest impact on industry — quantum mechanics, the structure of DNA, or the world wide web, for example — were all products of basic research," he says, even though their commercial applications may not have been completely evident at first.
But Britain's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council seems to disagree with this notion, Duff says, adopting an "impact" agenda in which grant proposals are required to identify "the national importance" of a project over a 10-to-50-year timeline. The council's purpose, according to chairman Sir John Armitt, is to "make sure that we are supporting those things that industry says it needs but which industry itself is not willing to fund." But this seems wrong to Duff, who says that the mark of a groundbreaking discovery is that no one knows beforehand how important it will be.