Nowadays, research outside the mainstream, that based on unfashionable ideas and with no obvious chance of satisfying a perceived need, stands little chance of winning support. Such research, with its unpredictable outcomes, was probably always rare, but it once inspired enormous growth and led to increased prosperity.
Research selection focuses on projects. Another way is to focus on researchers themselves and what they want to do. Before about 1970, this was the norm; and apart from major initiatives, there was no central selection, and most academics did not have to prepare proposals. Provided that their requirements were modest, they could tackle any problem that interested them.
Inspired by the 500 or so 20th-century scientists who won Nobel prizes and revolutionised understanding and growth, Venture Research is a successful initiative that restores freedom to a tiny number whose radical ideas are unlikely to win support today. Its selection process has few rules; it eliminates, for instance, peer review, disciplinary boundaries, deadlines, impact, milestones, priorities or even specific objectives other than to explore or understand. Researchers are free to go in any direction at any time; only the research’s possible outcomes are of interest.
Venture Research selection focuses only on an applicant’s potential for making progress in fields where understanding is poor or non-existent, such as the nature of gravity or consciousness. Selection is made through extended dialogue between applicants and a small team (just two or three members) of highly accomplished scientists. Application is easy – one page at most – and should be seen as providing only an opening gambit. Applicants, who may change fields, must be able to explain their ideas in conceptual terms and set out why their research is unlikely to be supported by the usual agencies.
Venture Research is based on experience at British Petroleum and UCL. For BP, the scheme ran from 1980 to 1993; some 10,000 proposals from Europe and North America were considered, and 37 were selected. At least 16 of these succeeded in radically changing the way we think in important subjects; some created new fields of study, and many attracted substantial industrial investments. Total cost to BP was some £20 million, and the commercial value of the outcomes probably exceeds £1 billion today. At UCL, we started a similar scheme in 2008, some 50 proposals have been considered from UCL staff since then, and one largely theoretical study selected. Total cost was £150,000, which came from university resources.