In science, the bizarre is our insurance for the future

Of all the sparky ideas for beating malaria, giving mosquitoes a head cold so that they can no longer sniff out their victims must rank among the wackiest. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said yesterday that it would fund the mission with $100,000 and another million if things look promising.

Altogether, Mr Gates has put up $200 million for unorthodox ideas to inspire “a revolution, rather than an evolution, in thinking” to solve the world’s health problems.

Now, let’s move from “inspire” to the word “strategic” (it sounds dull but that is the point). Lord Drayson, the Science and Innovation Minister, announced in January that instead of spreading cash around lots of research areas, Britain should narrow its focus along more “strategic” lines. By this he meant homing in on the stuff that (a) Britain does really well, such as medical research; or (b) will make money for UK plc, such as climate change technology. This, Lord Drayson jargonised, would “rebalance the economy”.

So it might, but it also saps the spirit and limits creativity. It is the antithesis of the anything-can-happen Gates mindset. In this narrowed view, the little cul-de-sacs of basic scientific endeavour that often open up into majestic (and potentially profitable) vistas of discovery, remain unexplored. Modern antibiotics and MRI scanning arose through such chance events.

This isn’t a nostalgic paean to the backyard British boffin; talented, professional scientists-turned- entrepreneurs worry about the Government’s view that technological progress can be choreographed from Whitehall. Squeezing the science that the taxpayer is prepared to underwrite encourages caution in grant applications rather than risk-taking; it suggests, wrongly, that innovation is predictable; it brings evolution rather than the kind of revolution that can bring lasting rewards.

You could argue that, in straitened times, science funding needs to get real. Undoubtedly, unproductive projects clog up British laboratories right now. But we’ll only know with hindsight. That’s why Barack Obama is expanding America’s commitment to basic science.

Serendipity, failure and slowness were recognised recently by Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society, as valuable components of the scientific process. He remarked that all the Nobel laureates he knows “highlight the long-term nature of their work, the unpredictability of its outcome, and the need for a supportive environment”.

But it would be a mistake to turn science into just another servant of the economy. Embracing the bizarre is our insurance policy for the future.

Anjana Ahuja