10 December 2015
Dialogue shows strong support for curiosity-led research
A public dialogue has shown strong support for curiosity-led research, with participants placing great importance on discoveries that underpin scientific understanding and that may lead to new breakthroughs in food security and human health.
The views are published today as part of a dialogue project commissioned by the John Innes Centre, which sought to establish the public’s priorities for its publicy-funded plant science and microbiology research programmes.
Preserving curiosity-led research tops a list of six principles identified by the public; the John Innes Centre will adopt all six in its future science strategy.
Director Prof Dale Sanders said:
“Many of the things we take for granted now have their origins in basic curiosity-led research. One example is our work understanding the genetics of soil-dwelling bacteria Streptomyces, which give rise to half the world’s antibiotics in use today. The researchers did not know, when they started their work more than 60 years ago, where it may lead – however, their science now underpins research which has had a positive impact on lives and which contributes some £247m annually to the global economy.”
The John Innes Centre is one of eight UK institutes receiving strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to carry out research to address the BBSRC’s strategic priorities – agriculture and food security, industrial biotechnology and bioenergy, and bioscience for health.
JIC scientists engaged in the programme of public dialogue as part of an institute-wide objective to reflect on a range of views ahead of its new five-year science programmes, 2017-2022. The study was commissioned by JIC and supported by BBSRC and the UK Government’s Sciencewise programme. The project was carried out by leading research company Ipsos MORI, and evaluated independently by Gene Rowe and Pier Logistics.
Participants in the dialogue, which included both face-to-face workshops in Norwich and Birmingham and online elements in its design, considered how current and historical science was carried out in making their recommendations, as follows:
1. Preserve the right to do basic, curiosity-driven research
Fundamental discoveries in bioscience underpin scientific understanding and may lead to new breakthroughs. Much of JIC’s research is in this area; an example is the work with the soil bacteria Streptomyces which give rise to half the world’s antibiotics in use today. JIC scientists pioneered research in Streptomyces genetics more than 60 years ago and this work has contributed greatly to human health.
‘The greatest discoveries of our time came from people’s curiosity and wanting to satisfy it’- Online community
“It’s a case of if you don’t dig you aren’t going to find it. There is a reason that things are here, and that’s why we have scientists.” Birmingham
2. Consider research with the greatest scope to tackle the most serious global problems
Research has implications with far-reaching impact. For example, JIC’s wheat research has led to crop improvements in countries where millions of people struggle to produce enough to feed their families. The public would like JIC to continue a focus in this area, consider the applications of science that will improve lives for the greatest number of people and tackle diseases that are most severe in their effects.
‘Research to address crop production worldwide is more important as this affects more people than people in the UK.’- Online Principles Task
‘Solve world poverty’ / ‘Save lives! [Antibiotics]’ - Norwich
3. Consider who stands to gain from the outcomes of JIC research
The public felt it was important to consider potential end beneficiaries at the start of research programmes, so that JIC could be accountable to the public by considering consequences that may arise from research decisions.
How might the institute’s decisions affect the world longer term?’ - Stakeholder workshop / follow up interviews
‘Science influences the market and the market influences science’ - Online group
4. Use public money to address areas of interest that commercial interests will not
The public felt that JIC, as a publicly-funded institute, should consider research which may lie outside of the commercial sphere. For example, participants would like to see scientists taking account of the interests of small scale farmers as well as of multinational businesses, helping UK farmers as well as those abroad, and researching critical illnesses affecting UK citizens alongside global health.
‘I think there are enough people doing research to bring products to market so I really appreciate curiosity driven research.’ - Online principles
‘(It’s about) world communications, we’re doing our little piece, they’re doing theirs, but what if we could do it all together and share it, we might be able to progress more.’ - Norwich
5. Continue to recruit the brightest and the best
The public thought the creative and non-hierarchical structure throughout JIC was inspiring and wish the institute to continue to use broad recruitment criteria; choosing new scientists who are bright and interested rather than attempting to fill specific niche positions. They were supportive of how JIC operates, which reinforces the strength in science.
‘I like the idea of how you recruit. If you are thinking outside the box and just recruiting generally bright people it is good.’ - Birmingham
‘Building expertise in new fields, just like this scientist, who was telling us what she was doing, it’s new and she’s bringing her expertise…’ - Birmingham
6. Plan for flexibility to tackle the unforeseen
Although science programmes are long in their design and realisation, the public would like JIC to be mindful of emerging challenges, like global disease epidemics, and retain the flexibility to redeploy resources as fresh challenges arise.
‘At the moment JIC is more early stage than immediate. If, for example, Oxfam were funding research, they would look at what the crisis of the time is, like Sudan.’ - Norwich
‘I don’t think they can look too far into the future now, because the world is changing.’ - Birmingham
The dialogue report is published just days after Chancellor George Osbourne protected the UK’s annual £4.7bn science budget in the Autumn Statement, announcing a rise in line with inflation and earmarking a further £1.5bn over the next five years for Grand Challenges projects for overseas development.
Prof Sanders added:
“Our programme of public dialogue has been extremely successful and has given us some clear guidance for the future. These principles, along with the positive effect that the dialogue has had on us as an institute and the backdrop of a protected science budget, sets us on a good trajectory to build on our successes for the challenges ahead.”
Word clouds based on 73 online community responses from adults aged 18-75 from JIC Community, 22nd May – 14th July 2015.