Venture Research: Fostering Trust and Freedom in Research Funding

Andreas Cellarius: Harmonia macrocosmica seu atlas universalis et novus, totius universi creati cosmographiam generalem, et novam exhibens. Plate 4.

Painting of the Copernican solar system by Andreas Cellarius

Background

The Venture Research Unit (VRU) was a BP initiative from 1980 to 1990 that provided £20 million in research funding to about 30 researchers and small teams from Europe and North America. It aimed to fund determined researchers who had identified significant gaps in existing knowledge or questioned current scientific thinking.

Trust and freedom were considered essential aspects of the VRU approach. To foster freedom, the organisers sought, for instance, to minimise administrative burdens. Applicants submitted initial proposals of no more than one page and could even apply by telephone. An important part of the application process was in-depth, in-person discussions between applicants and the VRU organisers, which helped build up trust between the researchers and the funder. The programme’s organisers considered about 10 per cent of the proposals they received to be potentially transformative, and invited these applicants to visit the VRU for further discussion of their proposals and interests.

Although VRU-funded work led to notable outcomes, similar initiatives have not been introduced on a large scale in the UK. However, University College London offers a Provost’s Venture Research Fellowship, which has awarded one fellowship to date. Former VRU head Donald Braben leads the selection team for this fellowship.

The recipient of the UCL fellowship is Nick Lane, a researcher in UCL’s Department of Genetics, Evolution & Environment. A year into his three-year fellowship period, he said: “I have the freedom to consider diverse research fields, to synthesize, and to formulate hypotheses and predictions to test them, both alone and in collaboration with others. In an ideal world, such pursuits should be open to all academics and researchers, but in practice successful funding applications tend to require conforming to accepted (and usually conservative) research norms. It is the difference between a duck with clipped wings, and a duck that can fly, with an ability to view the landscape with some perspective.”

Goals

RAND Europe researchers initially came across Braben's work in 2005 in the course of supporting the UK Department of Health's Research and Development Directorate in developing a new R&D strategy, and we produced an initial summary of Braben's work for that directorate.

Because it has generated ongoing interest, we have produced a brief report — an updated version of the original, intended for public distribution. Our summary is based on Braben's reports in his books Pioneering Research and Scientific Freedom.

Publication

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