News & Views
What is ‘Blue Sky Science’?
May 23 2014
‘Blue sky science’, sometimes known as ‘blue sky research’ or even just ‘basic research’, is the name given to scientific research undertaken in fields where the direct benefits and targets – both economic and practical – are either vague or completely unfixed. More colloquially, it is learning through science simply for the sake of learning, in the hope that by understanding more about our universe and the way it works, we will stumble across some important discoveries, ostensibly by chance.
Though it is hard to quantify the monetary return on such types of research due to the benefits only being seen in the long term, its proponents claim it is an essential field of research. Indeed, in the past it has often yielded examples of being even more vital than agenda-based research, due to the sometimes miraculous discoveries that it has produced.
The History of Blue Sky Science
An enthusiasm for blue sky science began to build up a head of steam post-WWII. American engineer, scientist and inventor Vannevar Bush championed its cause in a 1945 report named Science, The Endless Frontier, calling basic research “the pacemaker of technological progress”.
Support for the idea continued to grow until the 1970s, when economic crises and concerns about the unreliability of financial pay-off from blue sky science put a dampener on such practices across the globe. However, leading scientists continued to champion its cause, and it saw a resurgence in the 1980s with companies such as British Petroleum (now simply BP) establishing exclusively blue sky research facilities.
Similarly, in 2008 The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge announced the creation of the Theo Murphy Blue Skies award, which grants £1m annually in furthering our non-specific understanding of the universe. Other bodies promote the field through various programs and forums, as well.
The Hidden Gems of Blue Sky Science
Throughout the generations, blue sky science has yielded a number of important but unexpected discoveries. Perhaps the most famous example of this took place in an early twentieth-century Scottish drawing room; Nobel Prize winner Alexander Fleming noticed the strange anti-bacterial properties developing in a patch of mould growing, by accident, in a petri dish. Isolating the mould, he discovered that the fungus was toxic to bacteria but fundamentally harmless to humans; and penicillin was born.
Another Nobel Prize-winning innovation was the discovery of laser beams in the late 1950s. They were more or less stumbled upon by scientists who could have had no way of fathoming how widespread and useful they would become. Today, lasers operate in many facets of society, from DVD players to laser eye surgery to barcode scanners at the checkout.
Contemporary Examples of Blue Sky Science
Surely the most high-profile example of contemporary blue sky science is the Large Hadron Collider, created in recent years in a laboratory in Switzerland. The project was undertaken without a clear goal as to what it might unearth; however, in 2012, a new particle was discovered, which is most likely the Higgs Boson Particle.
Another example of an amazing recent discovery was uncovered by scientists from the British Antarctic Survey and Reading University, who were able to successfully resurrect life in samples of moss that had been frozen for over 1,500 years in ice. Will such a discovery help us to understand and develop cryogenic freezing techniques? Will it aid in the preservation of animals or humans? Only time will tell.
It remains unclear exactly what benefits the discovery will allow us; but surely one thing is for certain - maintaining funding and interest in this sort of research is not only desirable, it is imperative.
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