Why Fund Blue Sky Research?

Author: Krishna Agarwal
Editor: Aaron Celeste

Recently, I attended the panel discussion at a meeting of the European Research Council in Bergen. A central topic was ‘why fund frontier research’ or the so-called blue sky research. This is research that does not promise specific outcomes but explores new frontiers despite the entailing risk of failure and the need for brave and excellent researchers.

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Here are several reasons that were mentioned: 

  1. Blue sky research fosters a culture of extending frontiers (put forth by ERC President Maria Leptin
  2. Any new knowledge can be potentially useful (put forth by Rector of UiB Margareth Hagen
  3. We should be prepared for challenges that we do not currently envisage (put forth by Minister of Research and Higher Education of Norway Oddmund Hoel
  4. Blue sky research creates societal impact in unanticipated directions (put forth by the Chief Executive of the Research Council of Norway and the president of Science Europe Mari Sundli Tveit
  5. It keeps us competitive (put forth by ERC Vice President for Social Sciences and Humanities Gerd Gigerenzer

All of these arguments are of great value, and I would like to contribute 3 more: 

  1. To remain in touch with the ability of human beings. 
  2. To facilitate the productive and constructive engagement of intellectual human capital 
  3. For the sake of excellence itself. 

I elucidate on these arguments below. 

To remain in touch with the ability of human beings.

Human beings first skied to the North and South poles with a single primary intention – to prove that we can. The inherent ability of human beings to challenge themselves, beat their odds and to redefine their capabilities is one major aspect that delineates the human species from the rest. However, we as a species need to continuously validate these extraordinary abilities in order to remain in touch and in practice. Otherwise, these abilities rust, and we even forget about them.  

A Hindu myth of Hanumana (the ape god) falling out of practice of his skills reminds me of this aspect. As a mischievous child propelled by his superior intellect, lithe body, daring nature and energetic personality, he was a nuisance to many until a sage made him forget about these aspects of his personality. Then, when challenged with the task of crossing Indian Ocean to find the whereabouts of Sita (the kidnapped queen of Ayodhya), he just cowered and gave up on the task. It took a considerable amount of effort from Jambvant (the wise bear sage) to reawaken in Hanuman the awareness of his abilities and prowess, which made him the best fit for the task.  

Hanumana, the ape god – Source

Long story short, we need to continue reminding ourselves and validating for ourselves that WE CAN. We can discover, we can invent, we can learn, we can know, we can challenge, we can overcome, and we can excel. 

To facilitate the productive and constructive engagement of intellectual human capital

Returning to the example of Hanumana, being talented and having the capacity to excel is both a supreme asset and a very dangerous thing. Even more so when compounded with courage and appetite for risk. Our society can risk neglecting people with talent and courage, and in the best case they will also forget about it and live an ordinary life. But what’s worse is if they use these assets for destructive causes and are engaged on other malicious channels to unleash their abilities. If further disgruntled with society, they have the potential to wreak havoc.

Human society has a lot to gain, and a lot to lose depending on if governments and institutions can recognize such people, and choose to invest in them and creative endeavors of their liking. This is true even if no new knowledge is created and no societal impact is seen in short or long term. With a little bit of encouragement and mentorship, their energies can be further channeled to a variety of fruitful and impactful endeavors, including knowledge creation and societal betterment, but the primary needs of recognition, independence, and validation need to be met through frameworks such as blue sky research (and art and other professional expressions of their choice).

For the sake of excellence itself

It is in the nature of some individuals that they ‘excel for the sake of excellence itself’, irrespective of what job they do and what role they play. These people take pride in their work and want to contribute their best and go as far as possible. Indeed, there is a certain selectivity – for example I do not care much about physical exercise, but I care about my academic research and strive to excel as far as I can.

That streak of excellence is a celebration of itself, a means to its own end. In the most prosperous and peaceful days, it provides a testimony to humans’ existence. And in the bleakest times, it provides a principle for survival and a beacon of hope. It makes an ordinary day worth living and provides an ordinary person with worth and meaning in everything such a person does. Striving for excellence provides a larger artistic canvas to a society with such a streak and opens up the possibilities for what they can paint. Perhaps it’s just the romantic in me, but blue sky research makes our skies bluer on cloudy days and gives it a more vividly blue color on clear days!