Research 2030

Bye, bye, blue sky? Part 1: A conversation with Lee Cronin

March 09, 2020 Elsevier Season 1 Episode 4
Research 2030
Bye, bye, blue sky? Part 1: A conversation with Lee Cronin
Show Notes Transcript

Some argue that blue sky, also known as basic research, is critical – that the serendipitous results it fuels provide the perfect shoulders for giants to stand upon. But, with so much at stake globally right now, from climate change to population growth, is blue sky in danger of looking a little indulgent? And with public research funding under pressure and universities facing calls to focus on practical skills, is it living on borrowed time? Dr. Lesley Thompson, Elsevier Vice President of Academic and Strategic Alliances, explores these questions on Research 2030. In this episode she is joined by Regius Professor of Chemistry in Glasgow, Lee Cronin.

Leroy (Lee) Cronin FRSE was born in the UK in 1973 was appointed to be Regius Professor of Chemistry in Glasgow in 2013 after being a professor (2009 & 2006) and reader in Glasgow since 2002. Read more about Cronin and about the Chemify project.
Scopus author profile

Dr. Lesley Thompson joined Elsevier in 2016 as Director Academic & Government Strategic Alliance in the UK. Previously, she worked for 26 years at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the largest of the UK’s seven research councils. Read more.

Resources: Future-proofing research
In the Research Futures report , Elsevier and Ipsos MORI, one of the world’s largest research agencies, joined forces to understand how trends – from advances in technology and funding pressures to political uncertainty and population shifts – might be fueling the changes we’ll see in the coming decade.

The resulting large-scale future-scoping and scenario-planning study raised many questions and sparked interesting conversations – some of which we are capturing in this podcast.
Download report here

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Giacomo Mancini:   0:06
Hi, I'm Giacomo Mancini. Welcome to Research 2030, an Elsevier podcast series in which guests from academia and beyond join us in exploring, debating and challenging the changing research landscape. And welcome to the first of two episodes in which we pose the question: Is it time to say bye bye Blue Sky?  Applied science is practical. It's targeted and draws on existing knowledge to develop a product or a solution. Blue Sky, as the name suggests, is the opposite; those real world applications aren't immediately obvious, and projects are often sparked by little more than a healthy dose of curiosity. Some would argue that Blue Sky, also known as basic research, is critical, that the serendipitous results it fuels provide the perfect shoulders for giants to stand upon. But with so much at stake globally right now, from climate change to population growth, is blue sky in danger of looking a little indulgent? And with public research funding under pressure and universities face and calls to focus on practical skills, is it living on borrowed time? Our guest for this first episode, Professor Lee Cronin, Regis chair of chemistry at the University of Glasgow in the UK has won widespread recognition for his innovative and inspiring approach to science. Over the course of his conversation with guest host and Elsevier Vice President of academic and Strategic Alliances, Dr Leslie Thompson, he explains why he believes Blue Sky research might just prove to be a scientist'd best friend

Lesley Thompson:   1:42
Lee, I wonder if you could briefly describe your research on what motivates you for uneducated lay person?

Lee Cronin:   1:49
What motivates me, I guess, from a fundamental point of view, is just how life works and how physics and chemistry give rise to this thing called life. I've always been fascinated with how we use computers to explore the world as well.  And  my entire time, I've been combining these ideas. So I guess when I was from about the age of five to about nine years old, I took everything apart. I took out mathematical textbooks out at the library. I built my own computer. I was just busy trying to work out how things worked. And the more I played, the more fascinated and more confused I became, and that confusion has been motivating me for a very long time.

Lesley Thompson:   2:32
That's very interesting. And if you look at the terms on slide one that I sent you,  which terms best describe the research endeavor that you're undertaking and have done since you started in research.

Lee Cronin:   2:47
So I guess that I'm a blue sky scientist and I like to see myself as almost like a creative artist, if you like. I don't know that sounds right. Sounds a bit weird. I'm not very good at art. But I'm very good thinking about creative ideas, which I can imagine.

Lesley Thompson:   3:03
Your process is creative, just like an artist's process is creative.

Lee Cronin:   3:07
So I guess what I would say, I view science like an onion. And, that onion can be peeled in a lot of different ways. They've got those layers, and unless you ask the right question, you aren't going to peel off a layer. And so I try and use a blue sky approach to kind of be to get down those layers on that. Sometimes I can take shortcuts by confusing people into admitting what they find confusing about the world. If that makes sense. A lot of people make assumptions that that some things are just too hard, so like one of the things we try to do in my lab, which establish how the life got started, i.e. recreate the origin of life in my lab. A lot of people think that's impossible. That's one of the reasons why I'm doing it, because I think it is easy and obvious.

Lesley Thompson:   3:57
How would you define Blue Skies research more broadly rather than just your own research?

Lee Cronin:   4:04
So I think Blue Sky Research is really is a label. I would give to scientist who will be able to follow their nose, follow the gut instinct. And let's just say ask a question in a new way. And maybe not, even in a new way, maybe you might end up a lot of people in blue sky are asking the same question, but it's that ability to ask the question that I think is important without without any kind of end goal in mind, other than kind of getting some understanding. So I think for me blue sky's about being allowed to think tangentially on also blue skies about allowing yourself to get lost. I love getting lost. I spent most of my evening last night lost at Schiphol airport. That wasn't on purpose, but I'm developing a new theory of mathematical theory, which is going, I'm aiming to replace entropy in the end, and I had to really get lost in this. So I think that Blue Sky Science is really about giving people the time, and the confidence to really ask questions that may it. First of all, it's stupid, and may allow them to get lost in a noise of contradiction.

Lesley Thompson:   5:15
You've raised an interesting question there and  one that I would observe is quite difficult sometimes for young researchers, and that's to probe deep into areas that maybe everybody understands. But when you probe deep, it's only surface knowledge and having that confidence to ask those questions. Rather, assume what you've been taught or what you read in books. Where did you get your confidence to do that, Lee?

Lee Cronin:   5:44
When I was at school, I was in the remedial class from, you know, from ever ever since I can remember, and I was always told I was stupid and needed help. So whenever I was confused about something, the teacher would be like, Yeah, I know because you're stupid and they weren't discouraging. They were just, you know, I knew that no one had any expectations of me, and for me, that was probably the most liberating thing of my entire life. You know, a lot of people, I suppose you hear now everyone has very interesting stories, such that, you know, they were told they couldn't do it, X, they tried to do it and they succeeded and that's good. But for me, being told I was not very good. I mean, was it was heartbreaking, you know, initially, because I was I was always really interested in science, and but my teachers were telling me it looked like I was just, you know, I wanted to be smart and I was made up, but I'm no and I should stop pretending to be smart. It was like, OK, but can I just ask these questions anyway? And they let me do that. So when I went into academia on everyone and I and I asked outrageous questions and people just went, that's wrong or it's idiotic. I was like, Yeah, all right. But join the queue. I'm still asking the question, and I think that confidence really has being responsible for me to make the progress I've made because when people tell me I'm wrong, I wouldn't say, I wouldn't run away and hide. I just said, Well, why am I wrong? Give me feedback and I would try and take that feedback and improve and address their feedback. And by that process of listening to the criticism and improving is what actually makes a hopefully a reasonably competent scientist.

Lesley Thompson:   7:21
So how do you try and engender that same, um, inquisitive style in your own lab? In your own PhD students?

Lee Cronin:   7:31
I try to create a safety net, intellectual safety net for them by saying look every PhD student comes and I set them what I think is a Nobel Prize winning project. We haven't won any Nobel prizes yet, so that must mean we're failing. Or what's happening is that we're being far too excited or ambitious on our protects, and then when it doesn't work, OK, well, you know what? We don't have to win a Nobel Prize. We just have to what make the question simpler. And that process of making the question simpler allows people, if you do it collaboratively to find a level where they get, can build some confidence. So I kind of I love doing that because really, if you ask a really hard question than you fail, you're like, OK, well, I'm I'm Of course I was gonna fail. But now what do I do next that I'm really inspired by? I think I can do. And I think that I try and do that in a fairly safe environment. And, I try and get people to think in one of two modes, some people come in and they say that won't work. That won't work. That won't work. It won't work. And I said, Well, why do you think, why would I ask you to do an experiment that I knew would work? I want to do an experiment which I really don't know what the answer is going to be. So you can then go away. But if you do the experiment in your head and you failed experiment in your head, that doesn't really help me very much. So what I try to do is give people the confidence to think divergently, try, get feedback, and then when they've tried all these things and they've got in a ll these all these broken hypotheses we then converge and say, Well, is there are there any diamonds in the rubble? And then we go convergent and it's a process of allowing ourselves toe beaks crazy is the wrong word to be adventurous and then to say, you know, okay, adventurousness stops now let's actually do something according to a timeline. And so is that kind of movement between those two extremes builds confidence, and also it's a lot of fun because we discover stuff

Lesley Thompson:   9:31
That's brilliant, because one thing I would characterize your lab as is a lab that has a lot of fun. That's not always the case in research labs. But if you are running this very adventurous, speculative, serendipitous research lab, can you describe the relationship to that endeavor to then some of the work that you do that leads to applied science?

Lee Cronin:   9:54
I'll take one example, which is a thing we've invented called the chemputer, and the chemputer is a robot that basically you put in a code and it makes you a drug. Or if inorganic missed, it will make your molecules. Very kind of, you know, on one level, deeply inspiring another one and deeply kind of disturbing on the other level. Kind of like old boring. It makes an organic molecule. Well, the reason I invented the computer was I needed a robot to do lots of combinatorial kind of searching, because I needed to make a system that could crack the origin of life. So I needed a robot that would basically do lots of chemistry That wasn't necessarily going to go anywhere. But I could read out when things were working and when I tried to convince the PhD student to do that, they were like, Oh, my God, Best come take a million years or 100 million years? No. So, yeah, we'll design a robot on. Then when I went to funders and said, Hey, guys, we need just give me a load of money to make a robot to basically shake sand in a box on I don't know what it's gonna produce. Everyone was like, Well, can you can you, is there anything you can do with the sand?shaker? Oh, I can invent drugs for you. And they went good. Okay, So what happened? That is you've got on half of your team saying our motivation is there is to discover things on the other half is just a will. If we know how to make something by hand, can we faithfully reproduce it? And what I try and do is get those too kind of types of research to touch one another. And and then you allow people to move from a blue sky to a really like Oh my gosh, we've just made the chemputer work. It really actually produces drugs. What we do now is in use it for our our origin of life project, or we're now going to use it to go into discovery mode. And the thing that's been really exciting about it is then to show the funders when they have been funding me cause I sell everyone a slightly different story. But they're not, but they're all. Rather than be encountered to another, they all build together in a pyramid to help touch the sky is not like you know, I say to one funder. Oh, yes, I'll do 'A' few on another fund or we'll do 'Z', and actually, I'm not doing any of that. I make sure that the building blocks add together, and then when I do the big reveal funder A can  see how they've been getting additional  help from funder B to get their own ends and everyone becomes happy because they're sharing this bigger deal because we're literally building the chemical equivalent of a satellite. We've gotta work out how to launch it.

Lesley Thompson:   12:23
Brilliant? Um, that's really nice. Nice explanation. Nice example. So if you think of that and then you look at the world of research, can you comment on the importance or not of blue skies as the world faces increasing global challenges?

Lee Cronin:   12:44
Yeah, I feel quite passionate about that.

Lesley Thompson:   12:46
You might

Lee Cronin:   12:47
lose guy. Science is probably the only way we are going. We have any chance. So this let's just unpack this little bit of time for blue sky science or three reasons to do it. The first one is kind of cultural like human beings want to know why we're here in the universe and how can we understand the universe? The second thing is kind of training based. We want to allow people to be curious, to look at data to make critical decisions. And thirdly that some people said, Well, there's a real problem. I want to solve and so people can sit between those kind of motivations. But I think a few years ago Glasgow University wanted to start a energy kind of project, and they came to me and said, Look, you know, one of your colleagues thinks very highly of you. He's a world leader in photosynthesis and we want you guys to work together and we're gonna give you some money from a fund and it has to address this: solar fuel when I was like Oh my gosh, I don't want to do solar fuels. I just want to do crazy stuff. And I went, Well, hang on. I spend my day job trying to put electrons into molybdenum oxide and turn them blue because I want to know, basically, when I had more electrons to my molybdenum oxide, I get better nano structures. So why don't I try to think about that? Because I was in had to think about the solar context. I can't. I discovered a new way of splitting water using metal oxides, and we came up the system that produces hydrogen. We've got the highest, potentially the highest energy capacity flow battery, known it consistory 30 times more energy than other flow batteries on. We did this by mistake because we, we basically I was doing my blues going thing, and I was asked to basically spend a bit of my time thinking about how I might direct that energy. So I think that blue Sky scientists should engage a little bit and say, Okay, I'm gonna direct my energy, But what we mustn't do is let the tail wag the dog on when I'm trying to plea with the UK ,This very important junction in the UK is kind of political on technological transformation, to basically make sure that we're not just challenged lead. But we are. I want a coin, a new term. But I can't come up with one yet, but I want to kind of like Blue Sky Challenge kind of rebound, where I'm allowed to throw a kind of scientific question into the sky and see if some of the things we discover rebounds off one of the big topics of the day. Be it energy recycling, plastics solving the antibiotic drug problem, things like that.

Lesley Thompson:   15:22
And do you think many of your peers share your views? Or are they more comfortable? Um, questions posed by others and filling in the dots.

Lee Cronin:   15:34
I think lots of people want to be comfortable doing police by science, but I think we've done something a little bit bad, actually, In the UK, young scientists I see are writing proposals. Where's application first and science second. So they're writing the proposal for the funder, which is fine. The funder has the money, but scientists are reviewing the proposal. So I keep saying to my colleagues, My younger colleagues in particular when you're writing a proposal, have a new idea, like a fantastic new science idea. Why does this work? What happens if, and then say I'm gonna do that and then off course,  if it does work, I will then make a new battery or make a new degradable plastic, or will make a new drug. That's fine, but I think what we need to do is be really honest about the fact that 99.99% of all the money that I get from all the stakeholders, gets spent on doing curiosity driven research and training people and making sure the UK has a good technical base capability, and I think that we need to be, if we're honest about that with our peers, then suddenly you think All right, I might get lucky one day, but let's not spend all my time talking about application I'm never gonna achieve. And I think I have a roll It maybe being a little bit more constructive about the way I navigate the funding landscape to raise money to do what I want.

Lesley Thompson:   17:04
Yeah, I think your ability to share how you move in that space would be valuable, very valuable for younger researchers to see.

Lee Cronin:   17:14
Yeah, I agree. 

Lesley Thompson:   17:15
We recently did this very big report looking at the future of research, and one of the things that came up that I just want to question you about was talking to over 3000 researchers across the world, when they were asked where in 10 years time, the creative force driving new knowledge would be;. 42% of them thought it would be researchers, which means that on awful lot of researchers didn't put researchers at the center of the Creative Force, 27% thought it would be technology driving creative ideas. What's your gut reaction to that way. 

Lee Cronin:   17:53
So for me, I can only talk from personal experience. I'm a technophile. I love technology, Alot, and what I tend to do a lot that I don't think a lot of people do is I try and find the cutting edge technology as quickly as I can, and I use it. It's particularly because I'm you know, one of those people that don't really have any new ideas, right? Or maybe the ideas are look new, but they're just recycled. And I just apply the new technology to the old ideas, and I'm willing to get a new type of answer, and so I would say that technology, creates new science, and you can three things you need cutting edge technology. You need well trained scientists who are creative,  and the willingness to use that technology to build on that staircase, to step up and use it. So I think that I would probably ask, give a different answer to what your survey says and say, No, no, I want to do science. That's my stage name in the universe. But I'm very happy to use the best NMR machine. The best mass spectrometer. I mean, I've just got a mass spec I bought or mass spec a few years ago. Thanks to seeing the going search for aliens. And actually, I think we know how. Find aliens with our mass spectrometer, which is kind of cool.

Lesley Thompson:   19:12
Yeah, I'm just seeing a new headline for this book carefully,

Lee Cronin:   19:17
So I think that technology enables new science, and I think that one should not be a poor cousin of the other.

Lesley Thompson:   19:24
But the interesting thing you added into the mix was developing young people and training in people as in parallel.

Lee Cronin:   19:32
Yeah. I mean, why wait? A lot of people also knows how am I gonna train them? And I'm like, No, no, I don't do training dudes. What My role is to create a nice, safe lab that's well funded. We've got good technical people on. What I do is I give you a problem that we decide on together and we own that problem on. What we do is when we make that problem with my time management process of my project management process hard enough so that when you fail at the problem or you find it difficult, we know what your training needs are. And then we basically get you to solve your training needs by solving the problem. Because nothing is more motivating than learning code because you're gonna be the first person to write that code that's gonna uncover that mass spec and tell you if they're alien in the Murchison meteorite or no.

Lesley Thompson:   20:20
So if we look, it's a very timely session at the moment. If we look at changes on R&D spending across the globe on the massive rise off the east, and particularly China, what response do you think Western government should have to the massively increasing investment in China? And, it's moving up the international scale?

Lee Cronin:   20:44
I think the Western government should double down on creativity and double down on what we do really, really well. And I think we have a role to play in making sure that our colleagues in China also get get access to that creative it because there are massive cultural political differences and I would say that the volume of research is gonna be done in China in the next decade is truly staggering. Wouldn't it be great if, through collaboration between groups in China, the UK, US the rest of the world that we could make the quality of that data collected order relevance because I'm sure that they call it isn't get higher and higher and higher. But the relevance increase because we have new types of collaboration which are culturally sensitive and leverage, our unique abilities, right? I mean, there is a reason why the industrial revolution started in UK, and it's not because we're geniuses. I think it's because it rained all the time, right? If you're sitting between Birmingham and Wales in the freezing cold rain, you might have been motivated to create a new type of transport system, then say, if you're living in northern Spain in a nice olive grove near the sea, so I don't know. I mean, I think that we should not try and compete in volume. We should try and engage in such a way that we, humanity wins by cooperating in across these boundaries.

Lesley Thompson:   22:16
Good. Okay. I sent you some data on Glasgow University's research performance, which showed that when Glasgow just publishes normal papers, it's average Field Weighted Citation Index is 2.1 but when it co-publishes with international co- authors, it rises to 2.74, but when it co publishes with corporates, it rises to 3.84 And you've always worked with corporates. I also attached data for all of the U. K Russell groups, which showed that trend was consistent across nearly all Russell Group universities. Can you come in on your reaction to that data?   

Lee Cronin:   22:56
I'm surprised, actually that the corporate engagement or that must say...although I'm doing a crazy project with one UK company with their futurist technologist, and I'm saying, because everyone's in AI and I don't believe in AI. I does not exist in the way that people being told on the only way to make in a eyes to make AI, so this is a divergent thing, but I will answer your questions. Therefore, big time try do in the world making artificial lifeform make it intelligent, you know, create a consciousness if you like in it, and then a new way of doing computation on understanding if we can kind of do that computation in this object and make a wet brain that can rival the human brain and then understand information in the universe. But come it. But this entirely crazy idea of making a consciousness actually is starting a collaboration with corporate who's interested in the navigation and solving navigation problem on also quite a lot of funding from DARPA in the U. S. Where they want to invent a new type of computing paradigm that gives come competes with quantum computing on. I think I've come up with a chemical computer that maybe we'll get chemical supremacy quicker than the quantum computer get to Quantum supremacy, although Google claims they have it. But I think google has cheated a little bit. But coming back to I do find it interesting now Why? Why on the face it why it is corporate work, get more impact? Well, maybe because what happens is it become It's more immediate and more relevant to others so people can use it more quickly. And I would be really, really interested to see if how that kind of profile pans out over number years. My guess would be the corporate impact would be quicker and the blue sky would lack behind, but my ultimately be comparatively, if not a little bit bigger.

Lesley Thompson:   24:48
Okay, that's very interesting. I just find the data very interested. It wa quite a surprised. And it's such a strong boost that I think it's worth exploring, and I haven't spoken to anyone who recognizes it as a set of data. They were surprised by it. So maybe we could look at your portfolio and how that's changed over time and what various papers of yours of done and then classify them. So having had all that conversation, what is your view of the future role of universities?

Lee Cronin:   25:20
I think I think, the future all the universities to make sure the concept off critical thinking or not. The concept. The process of critical thinking and debate doesn't get corroded by all the various cultural and phenomena, be them politically correct or politically motivated. I'm trying to say this very delicately. And, basically, you give a home to, not crazy people, because that's not fair, you give home, you give a home to freethinkers. Yeah, on. I think that certainly the universities in in Europe, the older universities, I have a tradition of this are perhaps better established, and there's maybe a challenge for some universities that are coming in China associated with political system,to really make sure the universities are that cradle off creativity and critique going forward. And I think that won't change, but the way the university runs implements this mission on the way individual universities, act as entities, I think is is crucial. The thing that I always dreamed of when I was younger, this Internet, I wish there was his Internet. We'd all be connected together and get all the information we need. All that dream has come true in my lifetime. But something else has happened in that it has been hijacked by people wanting to manipulate the current truths of the day. Now that always happens, right? You know, the person that owns the printing press owns the propaganda. But I think that universities have a special role in challenging that problem and providing new solutions and also providing government with new ways of ensuring that humanity has access to do evidence as objective as possible.

Lesley Thompson:   27:15
I've asked you an awful lot of things and cool it to a close now, but have you got any other comments or observation and you'd like to make?

Lee Cronin:   27:23
I've almost published now with 700 authors in the last, you know, 20 years or so, and what I've noticed is that the thing that academia is afforded me, and my ability to travel and go to different cultures is that not only is my my ideas and my perspective being enriched, but I've really had a very serendipitous career, and I would encourage, you know, people may be listening to podcasts and thinking about their motivations for doing metric based research or blue skies research and technology to basically, to embrace, whatever your angle, to embrace serendipity so you can break the algorithm doing the metrics. And as long as we can break the algorithm, human beings will continue being human beings, and life will get even more exciting.

Lesley Thompson:   28:13
I think the other thing that serendipity gives you is you enjoy your life as a researcher and research is a tough career. So if you're not going to enjoy it, why would you start and think that is often missed?

Lee Cronin:   28:24
Exactly. I agree with that

Lesley Thompson:   28:26
Lay that was brilliant. Thank you very much for that

Giacomo Mancini:   28:29
For Lee, it's clear that continuing to provide researchers with the space and funding to explore and be adventurous will prove crucial as we negotiate an uncertain future. In fact, he believes it is our only option. As the high capacity flow battery that Lee developed demonstrates, Blue Sky thinking is often a first and very important step on the path to delivering real and practical solutions, according to Lee, success will depend on leveraging collaborations. We must be bold enough to continue asking the question: Why? even when people are tired of hearing it and we must take risks and embrace the opportunities offered by new technology. Interested in learning more about how blue sky might fare in the coming 10 years? Who was a key theme in Elsevier's 2019 study Research, Futures, Drivers and Scenarios for the next decade, you can download the report from the link provided in our show note. In our next bye Bye Blue Sky episode, Leslie chats with New York University President, Dr. Andrew Hamilton, who reflects on the role that universities and funders can play in securing the future of basic research. Please remember to subscribe to Research 2030, so you were notified as the episode and future episodes become available and finally thank you to Professor Lee Cronin for joining us here on Research 2030 and to Dr Leslie Thompson for hosting this episode. We also welcome your feedback and comments. Share them with us by sending an email to And I'm Giacomo Mancini, as always, thank you for listening.