Published 3 July 2013 by Beatrice Lugger

The danger of losing the creative element of science – Sir John E. Walker

Last October 39 Nobel Laureates and 5 Fields Medal winners signed an open letter to warn against cutting the future European Union research budget. Among them was Sir John E. Walker – together with eleven further Laureates who attend this year’s Lindau Meeting.

„In case of a severe reduction in the EU research and innovation budget we risk losing a generation of talented scientists just when Europe needs them most,” they warned in their letter addressed to the EU Head of State or Government and Presidents of EU institutions.

Time to talk about money. I used the chance to do so in my very nice interview today with Sir John Walker, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry in 1997, by profession an expert in the power machines of life, the ATP-synthase.

Sir John E. Walker
Caption: Simon Engelke


Walker fears we might loose the possibilities and funding for researchers to do curiosity driven science – science without a clear goal.

“We should not miss ‘blue sky research’, research ideas that come from individuals.

One of the dangers in the way that science is funded at the moment is, there is enormous pressure to collaborate with other people. And there is a lack of support for individuals to develop their own ideas. What we call ‘blue sky research’ is extremely important for innovation.”

Asked for some examples of  ‘former’ blue sky research, which lead to applications at the very end, Walker named two findings from the 1970s.

“One example was the invention of DNA sequencing by Frederick Sanger, which ultimately led to the human genome. But in the mid 1970s Sanger had no idea of the impact of his development and discovery for sequencing DNA 20 years later. He did his research, because he was interested in how to determine sequences of macromolecules – and for no other reason.

A second example was the invention of molecular antibodies by César Milstein, also in the mid 1970s. César could not and did not at that time conceive that molecular antibodies would be used as they are increasingly in medicine, for example for treating cancers. “

In comparison Walker describes the situation today as one in which creativity is not supported (that much) any more.

“The system in which Sanger and Milstein developed their ideas, was an intellectual environment, where people were appointed as scientists because they were seen as being creative and clever.  And they were allowed to develop their own creativity and cleverness.

Today there really is a danger of loosing this creative element of science. We try to super organize science into huge networks of people who all collaborate with each other. Of course there is benefit in that, but I think one should not loose the other positive effects.”

Walker sees one problem in committees that decide about research funding and tell scientists this way, what kind of research they should do.

“At that time (Sanger and Milstein), there was no committee telling them to do this. It came from them, entirely! So there must be a mechanism to support brilliant people who have innovative ideas, which are absolutely not on the map  – of the European Union or anybody else.

The idea, that science can be directed from above by a group of people telling scientists, what they should work on is somewhat odd. A group of people has decided where the money should go and funds particular ideas.”

This leads sometimes today to the ‘normal’ situation, that scientists write proposals for research funding that are ‘related’ to their research – and use the money also for what they are really interested in. Walker comments on this:

Well that is not entirely honest and it is also cynical. I think one should not be forced in to that rather uncomfortable position, because the funding constrains. “

Beatrice Lugger

Beatrice Lugger is a science journalist and science social media specialist with a background as a chemist. She is Scientific Director of the National Institute for Science Communication, NaWik – @BLugger is her twitter handle, Quantensprung her own blog.