Science and technology drive economic growth. Robert M. Solow won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1987 for drawing attention to this simple fact. However, who could name the people behind such great 20th century discoveries as the laser, nuclear power, electronics, and the computer? A few perhaps, but everyone knows that they came out of the blue. No one predicted them. No one asked for them. How could they? They had no market when they were being explored. But these unplanned discoveries underpin economic activity. Can you think of a job that does not depend on at least one of them?

That's OK, the person in the street might say. Science is always coming up with something amazing. That response used to be reasonable. Until the 1970s, the mysterious processes of discovery could indeed be left to look after themselves. The restless pioneers did their own thing. Nobody set their agenda but the great discoveries came anyway.

However, changes made since the 1970s are killing this magical source. Until then, a scientist with a radically new idea could scrape together enough funds to explore its potential. That's not possible today. Researchers must now convince a committee before they can do anything. Scientists are loosing the freedom to be impartial. Originality and adventurous research are discouraged because committees can't be imaginative. We have more scientists today than ever before, but they must concentrate on refining existing knowledge. It's easier to assess performance that way. This is no way to reach the unknown. Between 1951 and 1974, the global per capita economy grew at an average rate of 2.8% a year. Between 1975 and 2001, that figure fell to 1.4%. We are heading for economic stagnation.

What needs to be done? The main problem in academic research today is that peer review, the bureaucratic god of science without whose blessing research cannot be funded, has been deemed infallible. That's not too bad in the mainstream where everyone more or less agrees on the most important problems. Pioneers, however, rarely agree with anyone. In industry, almost every major company is now concentrating on its core business. Exploratory research has been virtually eliminated. As a result, new technologies today are derivatives of generic discoveries made decades ago. We are living off the seed corn. We must find ways, therefore, of backing those rare scientists whose primary need is freedom, but can these would-be Einsteins be identified?

Conventional wisdom says they can't. There are too many scientists and too few Einsteins. But in 1980, British Petroleum (BP), showing the corporate daring of another age, invited a few of us to tackle this very problem; that is, to find the Einsteins and support their work. We soon learned that current selection procedures fail completely for these rare people, so we scrapped them. We focused on people rather than projects, priorities, or fields. Anyone could apply at any time. There was no red tape; a few words would do, initially. The new method proved very successful. Our scientists tackled totally new problems or had radically new approaches to old ones, and they made a large number of unpredicted breakthroughs. These included developments in industrial chemistry that dramatically reduced environmental impact; a new generation of ultrasensitive instruments for noninvasive detection of weak electrical emissions, such as those from a tiny human fetus or a huge geological site; and the introduction of new dimensions into genetic analysis. The achievements may not yet sound Einsteinian, but if only a few words are allowed, Einstein's most valuable work could be described as accurately explaining how light interacts with surfaces. Such apparently simple beginnings led eventually to the electronics industry, of course. Unfortunately, in 1990, BP caught that dreadfully infectious corporate disease, core-business-itis, which makes companies concentrate on the products that did best in the past, and closed us down.

This was a pity. Our heretical scientists turned out to be very successful, even though every one had been turned down by peer review. BP's total outlay on the initiative was $27 million. The actual value of subsequent developments now exceeds $360 million.

Our crusade is now backed by an international group of 39 eminent scientists from different disciplines. If we are to have a future that is worth living, we must let pioneers lead the way, as we did not so long ago. Unfortunately, the funding agencies are deeply committed to the paraphernalia of assessment, objectives, and so-called efficiency, and seem unable to see the wood for the trees. There is an urgent need for private investors, therefore, who have not forgotten that the potential of science is still largely untapped, and that great scientists need freedom to explore.

[1] Don Braben is chief executive of Venture Research International and a visiting professor at University College London, UK. His ideas are expounded in more detail in his recent book, Pioneering Research: A Risk Worth Taking, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, (2004).

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(04)00476-6