Nov 9, 2020
In this conversation I talk to Donald Braben about his venture research initiative, peer review, and enabling the 21st century equivalents of Max Planck.
Donald has been a staunch advocate of reforming how we fund and evaluate research for decades. From 1980 to 1990 he ran BP’s venture research program, where he had a chance to put his ideas into practice. Considering the fact that the program cost two million pounds per year and enabled research that both led to at least one Nobel prize and a centi-million dollar company, I would say the program was a success. Despite that, it was shut down in 1990.
Most of our conversation centers heavily around his book “Scientific Freedom” which I suspect you would enjoy if you’re listening to this podcast.
This conversation. I talked to Donald breathing about his venture research initiative, peer review, and enabling the 21st century equivalent of max Planck.
Donald has been a staunch advocate for forming how we fund and evaluate research for decades. From 1980 to 1990, he ran BP's venture research program. Where he had a chance to put his ideas into practice. [00:01:00] Considering the fact that the program costs about 2 million pounds per year and enabled research, that book led to at least one Nobel prize and to send a million dollar company.
I would say the program was success, despite that it was shut down in 1990. Most of our conversations centers heavily around his book, scientific freedom, which just came out from straight press. And I suspect that you would enjoy if you're listening to this podcast. So here's my conversation with Donald Raven.
would you explain, in your own words, the concept of a punk club and why it's really well, it's just my name for the, for the, outstanding scientists of the 20th century, you know, starting with max blank, who looked at thermodynamics, and it took him 20 years to reach his conclusions, that, that matter was, was quantized.
You know, and that, and, he developed quantum mechanics, that was followed by Einstein and Rutherford and, and, and a [00:02:00] whole host of scientists. And I've called, in order to be, succinct Coley's they, these 500 or so scientists who dominated the 20th century, the plank club. So I don't have to keep saying Einstein rather for that second.
I said, and it's, it's an easy shorthand. Right. And so, do you think that like, well, there's a raging debate about whether the existence of the plank club was due to sort of like the time and place and the, the things that could be discovered in physics in the first half of the 20th century versus.
Sort of a more or more structural argument. Do you, where do you really come down on that? The existence of the plank club? [00:03:00] W well, like, yeah, so like, I guess, I guess it's, tied to sort of like this, but the question of like, like almost like, yeah. Are you asking, will there be a 20th century, 21st century playing club?
Do you think, do you think it's possible? Like, it's sort of like now right now. No, it's not. because, peer review forbids it, in the early parts of the 20th century, then scientists did not have to deal with, did not necessarily have to deal with peer review. that is the opinions of the, of the expert of the few expert colleagues.
they just got on, on, Edgar to university and had a university position, which was as difficult then as it is now to get. But once you got a university position in the first part up to about 1970, then you could do then providing your requirements were modest, Varney. You didn't [00:04:00] need, you know, huge amounts of money.
Say. You could do anything you wanted and, you didn't have to worry about your, your peers opinions. I mean, you did in your department when people were saying, Oh, he's mad. You know, and he's looking at this, that, and the other, you could get on with it. You didn't have to take too much attention. We pay too much attention to what they were doing, but now in the 21st century, consensus dominates everything.
And, it is a serious, serious problem. Yeah. So I, I seriously believe that keeps me what keeps me going is that it is possible for there to be a plane club in the 21st century. It is possible, but right now it won't take, it won't happen. I mean, re there's been reams written on peer review, absolute huge, literature.
and the, but, but most of it seems to have been written by, by people who at least favor the status [00:05:00] quo. And so they conclude that peer review is great, except perhaps for multidisciplinary research, which ma, which might cause problems. This is the establishment view. And so they take steps to try to ease the progress of multidisciplinary research, but still using peer review.
Now. Multidisciplinary research is essentially is, is absolutely essential to venture research. I mean, because what they are doing, what every venture researchers, the researcher is doing is to look at the universe. and the world we inhabit in a new way. So that's bound to create new, new disciplines, new thought processes.
And so the, when the conventional P, when the funding agencies say, there's a problem with multidisciplinary research, they're saying that's a problem with venture reserves. Yeah. And so therefore we won't have a plank club until that problem is [00:06:00] solved. And I proposed the solution in the book. Of course.
Yeah, exactly. And so I guess, so with the book, I actually think of it as it's just like a really well done, an eloquent, almost like policy proposal, like it's, it's like you could, I feel like you could actually take the book and like hand it to. A policymaker and say like do this, I guess you could, so, I guess to put it, but like clearly nobody's done that.
Right? did you, do you ever do that? Like, did you actually like go to, government agencies or even billionaires? Like the, the amount of money that you're talking about is almost like shockingly small. what, what are, what are people's responses of like, why not do this?
Patrick Collison as being the only billionaire who has responded, I've met about, I don't know, half a dozen billionaires. And, they all want to, they all want to do things [00:07:00] their way, you know, they all want to, which is fair, which is fair enough. They all want to, sees a university through their own eyes.
They are not capable of saying opening their eyes and listening to what scientists really want to do and to get what scientists really want to do. You've got you. You just can't just ask them straight off. You've got to talk to them. For a long time before they will reveal what they want really want to do.
And then only a few of them will be capable of being a potential member of the plank club of the 21st century state. But it's a wonderful process. It's exciting. And I don't know why. well, I, I think I do actually, why the conventional authorities do not do this. And I believe that for, the reason this is more or less as follows that, for 20, 30 years following the expansion of the universities in about, about 1970 for political reasons.
[00:08:00] no, not at all for, for scientific reasons that, there was a huge expansion in the universities and, and, and a number of academics. I really really mean it's factors of three, two, three, four, or something like that, depending on the country. Really huge. And, so therefore the old system where freedom for everyone was more or less guaranteed, which is what I would advocate freedom for everyone as a right.
So, what we have done now is to develop absolute selection, rules, absolute selection rules for selecting venture researchers. And, and, and that's taken, you know, that's taken some time to develop them, but they work well. And, and, and open up the world to a complete ways, new ways of looking at it.
Yeah, look, I mean, the, the, the track record seems very like very good, right? Like you, you, you, you [00:09:00] enabled research that would not have happened otherwise and led to Nobel prizes. Right. Like, I don't, I don't see how it could, what evidence one could present that your method works more so than that. and so it's, so yeah.
Well, well, over the years you see, the, the scientists to work in for, for the funding agencies. they have advised politicians on the ways to ration research without affecting it. And they have come up with the way, the method of peer review, which is now a dairy girl, you know? it's absolutely essential.
Yeah. Every to every funding agency in the world, I've not come across one that does not use it well, apart from our own operation, of course we don't use it. but we, we find ways around it. And that's the conventional wisdom is that there are no ways around, [00:10:00] there are no way. peer review is regarded as the only way to ensure research excellence.
People keep saying that it's the only way, but we have demonstrated with the BP venture to search you and this and that UCL, that there is another way. And, and I guess so is, is, is the response from, people that you would propose this to simply that , they, they don't believe that. they don't believe that it can work because it doesn't, it isn't peer reviewed, , is that the main contention?
Any, any ideas now must, must, must survive. Peer review and venture research of course would not. And so therefore what we're saying is therefore not admissible. And now a few people, in like the 50 or so of my, my, of my supporters, very senior supporters, re regard what we [00:11:00] are doing as essential, but their voice is still tiny compared with the, you know, the millions of, researchers and, and the, I I'm the funding agencies.
Now the funding agencies kept on saying that they have advised politicians over the years, that the only way to ensure to ensure, that the, that the scientific enterprise is healthy is to, is to, is to a DIA to peer review. Now. They cannot. They cannot now say, ah, yes, Raven points out. There's a serious floor.
They cannot do that. And so they say they do, they do not acknowledge that I exist or that the problem exists. This is so, so just because like they have, have doubled down so hard on peer review being the acid test for research quality. That they, they just like, they can't, they're like they're [00:12:00] lash to that, man.
Okay. And, so I, I know at least in the NSF, I think actually shortly after your book came out originally, so in. 2008, 2009. I read about an initiative to try to do more. I think they, they termed it like transformational research and the NSF, that was the NSF, initiative. it was pioneered by Nina fedoroff. Nina fedoroff, who's a great, another great is one of my supporters. and, she was the, she was the, I think she was the chairman of the science board or something like that, which controls the NSF. And so she set up a special task force to look at. Mainly what I was trying to do.
And so, she invited me to go to Washington on three occasions and we sat in this huge room at the national science [00:13:00] foundation headquarters. And we, we, we, we had three, two or three day meetings, venture research, and they concluded that it was the only way to go. And so that's what they recommended to the NSF.
But what did the NSF do with decided that th that, that, that they would accept Nina Federoff's recommendations, but they should be administered by each of the divisions separately. Well, that's, that means they don't do anything that they wouldn't do normally.
and so, I guess one, one thing, I'm not sure if you mentioned it in the book, what do you think about, like HHMI Janelia and. Like sort of the effort that they do, because it is much closer to your recommendations, how Hughes you mean? Yeah. Howard Hughes medical Institute. Yeah, exactly. and specifically like they're their Janelia campus where my understanding is [00:14:00] that they give people sort of, whole free funding for five years and really just sort of let them.
Explore what they want to explore, but they have to, but they, I think they insist on them going to the central laboratories. Yeah. Yeah. That is a problem. How's that? Because, well, because, scientists all have roots and they all, I've ended up where they have, you know, wherever it is and that's where they prefer to work.
And so therefore in venture research, that's why we allowed them to work in their old environment. Yeah. But now with total freedom and they'd radically transformed, you know, a little segment of the, of what it's done, but they transformed it and that they would've transformed even more. Had we been allowed in 1990, if BP had allowed venture research to continue.
They were th th there [00:15:00] would be more than 14 major breakthroughs because, in 1990, when BP closed us down, then we, these people no longer could rely on venture research support the, the, the essential, feedback that we gave them, the meetings that we arranged, you know, of all venture researchers, which we had to work out how the hell to do that because, you know, w th the just scientists and engineers, scientists, and engineers all came together.
Yeah. And, I don't know that's been done. but anyway, right. we were no longer allowed to provide that support. And so therefore they were on their own and exposed to the full rigors of peer review in applying to funds before they were ready for it. Yeah. The successful ones are venture research, you know, people they can suddenly, you know, it's, with his ionic liquids, then he, he, he, jumped over the line [00:16:00] of, of, of, into mainstream science and it became then part of the mainstream.
Yeah, and same with similar Polica and all the other people who, who, who, who was successful. But, but th th there were, there were a few groups, you know, who were left high and dry and, and they had to manage, they had to, cut their class according to the funding. Yeah. do you keep track of people who today would make good venture researchers? but, but don't like, like, do people still still send you letters and say like, I want to do this crazy thing. No, I'm afraid.
I can't, I can't do that because I would be, raising their hopes, way beyond what Mabel to provide, UCL. We've done that and we've met one person. we supported one person, Nick lane, whose work has been prodigious digitally successful. Now he could not get support. He couldn't get support from anybody.
[00:17:00] Before we, we felt a bit, before we backed in. And, so I persuaded the university to cover up 150,000 pounds over three years, which is trivial amount of money. Totally. Totally. And since that time, since then, he's, now he's more or less stepped over the line and he's now become mainstream. And he's, since that time as you're right.
5 million pounds, 5 million compared to the 150,000. So that's, that's profitable, you know, as far as the university is concerned, they're profitable, but even so even with UCL, it's still not caught on. Yeah. And, do you, do you, so when I, I guess I also have a question about like, what about the people who might make really be really good researchers, but , don't even make it through to the point where, they would even like be able to [00:18:00] raise venture, venture research money in that , There's also the fact that.
in venture research, you were entirely supporting people except for, believe one case, you were supporting people who are already in academia, right? they'd already sort of gone through all the hoops of getting a PhD and, getting some sort of, some sort of position. And so do you have a sense of how many possibly amazing people get weeded out?
even before that point? Oh, I mean, to be a venture researcher, you you've got to have a university position, I would guess. or, I mean, as with, was, with, with, with the only engineer we supported, he was working for a company and we enabled them to leave and I took great care to, to, to inquire of him.
He w he would have to give up his job because, you know, industrial company couldn't support him if he was working for another company. And so I had to be sure that [00:19:00] he really was serious about this. And so we arranged that he, we arranged for a university appointment for the nearest university to where he lived, which was sorry.
That's was just down the road, so to speak. And, but even that created problems, he was never really accepted by the university hierarchy.
And w why do you think the university, association is, is important? as opposed to just someone just, you know, just doing research, right? Like what if they had, they built like a lab in their basement or. we're doing mostly theory. And so they just sort of, they've done that. You know, people, you know, like the guy, the guy at shop, I mean, if they, if they'd done that, then of course we listened to them, but they must be, they must be reasonably proficient in, in, in, in, in what I mean, they're, they're coming with a proposal to do something.
Right. And to some that you've got to, [00:20:00] you've got to have done something else. You've got to, you've got to prepare the ground, so to speak. Yeah. So getting a university appointment today is no more difficult than it was say in 1970, you still had to get up. You still got to get, you know, go through a degree.
PhD may be, and, and then, convince the university that you're worthy of, appointment. But then as I said before, You, you had automatic, you automatically qualified for this modest amount of funding, at least in Britain. you automatically qualify for that, but now you're quantifying for nothing.
Once you pass the, you know, you're appointed by the university, you then start this game of trying to convince funding agencies to support you. And if you don't, you're dead. Yeah, you don't get, you don't get anywhere. You've got no Tanya. So you, you, you, you, you just disappear. It says it's an unforgivable system and it's extremely [00:21:00] inefficient.
Yes. Do you think, I guess the question is like, is, is efficiency even the thing that's worth shooting for it. Like, it seems like it's, it's going always going to be inherently inefficient. Because of the uncertainty. like I guess I always worry when, when, like, when efficiency comes up as a metric around research, because then you sort of start having to calculate like, okay, like how much value is this?
What is our like, return on investment? Like how efficient is that? And it's just, do you think that's the right way to think about it? Well, it's certainly not a bad way. but, but mines are closed, you know, I, I've been in touch with so many people over the years, you know, I've been at this now for 20 years since, since BP terminated my contract, so to speak and I've never, and I've always, and I've always tried every single minute [00:22:00] of that 20 years to find new ways of doing this.
I mean, it's big, it does sound a bit, you know, that, that th th th th th th th the, the, what I do as a large element of the crank about it, but I'm so convinced of the value of this eventual research and its contribution to humanity, so to speak. I'm so convinced that it will make an enormous contribution that I keep on going.
Yeah. No. I mean, I have no money. Yeah, no, I'm not paid to do this. And the first person that I've met of the many, very rich people I've come across has been factored colorism. Who, offered to publish my book and at a fraction of the price, why only were charging for it? Why do you charge $75 for a paperback he's charging less than $20 for a, for a hardback?
Yeah. Well, I think he realizes that it's important for people to [00:23:00] actually read it. That's that's good. he, took part in, just before he met me, he took part in a, in a, in a, in a, in a blog or something like that. it's on, it has a YouTube thing. And, he said he was very impressed when he met me and I, I, I, I changed the way he looked.
Yeah. I changed the way he looked at the world. You know, and, and he made this, joining an hour long speech to these fellow billionaires, but no, one's come forward. No one said, you know what you wanted. Yeah. Well, I hopefully like, I mean, hopefully between the book being out and, like. You know, I, I try to recommend it to everybody.
I know. so, so hopefully like we'll, we'll start to, sort of get it more into people's heads. Do do you have any good stories about, people who applied and didn't make it right, [00:24:00] because I assume that, like, I always noticed that the sort of a line between like brilliant ideas and like completely crackpot ideas is very, very thin.
so did you get any, like really, really ridiculous applications? It's not that thin. I don't think it is, there were lots of people who came to me and said, you know, similar dynamics is bunk. And, and one thing that they really hate is to be asked you say, okay, I agree that it is, what do you want to do now that completely floors them.
So people was a crackpot idea are automatically. disqualified because they never return. They never say what they want to do, or if they do, you know, you cannot, you keep on re repeating the same question and they eventually gave up. Now venture was search the venture researcher. I may not say we, we, we, we may not say yes for the first meeting.
It [00:25:00] might be five, six, seven, eight meetings with Dudley, Hirsch, Nobel laureates. It took more than a year. Because, you know, I met him very shortly after he got his Nobel prize and he came to a meeting that I took part in a meeting of the American physical society in New York. And, and I gave a talk and there, I noticed this guy in the front row scribbling away and he came to me after each day.
He said that I think I've died and gone to heaven. This was Dudley Hurst back three days after winning the Nobel prize. And he had an idea which no one would listen to. And, well, we, we, we, backed him, but I can't think of an, of people who come with crazy ideas and gone on to be, you know, to, to, to fizzle out and die if you like.
And, and, and so w I w I want to dig into that because that's, that's really, I feel like you're, you're saying something like very important. [00:26:00] and that, so to sort of repeat back to you, it sounds like the people who are not crackpots are able to like go to a level of precision about action that other than people who don't know what they're talking about are not able to do.
Would that be accurate? Okay. That's exactly right. And, I'm, I'm asking like very much, because I, I'm trying to do similar things and like looking at, it, and like very much in the same position where it's not always in my exact field. and so it's, it's like, what is that? That you can. Do to sort of like tease out the, like the, the difference between a good, crazy idea and a crazy, crazy idea.
Well, all venture research has courses outside my own field, all of it, because I'm, you know, that was a [00:27:00] long time ago when I was a practicing scientist. And so everything is outside my, my competence, so to speak, which is another reason why the mainstream venture is searchable. The mainstream, funding agencies tend to disregard what I say because it doesn't pass peer review.
Of course. Yeah. So, we are accustomed to being uncomfortable with talking to people we are, but we try to engage them in conversation that reveals what they really want to do, what they, and try to assess, what they want to do compared with the state of knowledge in that field right now, you know, they want to transform it.
and you don't have to be a fellow expert to understand that. I mean, I am an expert now, but in general, things like science, you know, or engineering that the broadest possible approach to these study subjects. And I can, I can tell on everyone else can tell who was involved with this process because when I came to BP, [00:28:00] they gave me two or three very, talented people, more or less people like yourself, you know, high flyers young in their early 2030s.
And they joined me for two or three or four years. And, they were, they were mainly chemists. and so, yeah, chemistry, I think, I think, only there was only one physicist. This, I think that the BP provided me with, and it didn't matter because they were all fairly, talented people, very talented people, in fact, and you didn't have to say anything twice to them, you know?
And, and they took it like a duck to water. Now we never had to discuss. But, you know, when we're sitting around our little table and people would, were coming with their ideas, we never had to discuss whether someone was what we called a venture researcher. It came to immediately obvious to anybody to have to everyone around the table, that he was someone who wanted to transform thought processes in that particular [00:29:00] field, they would do something important and that, and, and then once we made up our mind, then.
Then, we backed them and then they could then do absolutely anything they wanted and, you know, nothing, you know, we're not bound by the proposal they wrote to us. Yeah. But that was mainly the agency, which, which caused it caused us to, to, to select them. And mostly, I mean, most people did of course, you know, but, some of them didn't.
And do you feel like. So, so I'm, I'm really interested in sort of like the, the landscape of the like untapped potential in research. And so, venture research sort of goes after people who already have an idea and know what they want to do and need money and support to do it. And I wonder if there's sort of another [00:30:00] class of people who.
Could do amazing things, and, and have the right skills and mindset to do it, but almost have like either not even thought of the things yet, or, or sort of have suppressed them in order to fit into the peer reviewed research box. and they could be unlocked by either like putting them in contact with, with other researchers or, Sort of like shifting their focus.
Do, do you have a set, like a sense of like, whether those people actually exist or am I just making, making that up? Well, I'm not quite clear what you're saying. I mean, the people that, most venture researchers we came across, I mean, they knew precisely what they wanted to do well eventually, and they would eventually admitted to us.
What they really wanted to do, you know? but there must be mutual trust. Trust has been lost entirely in funding. [00:31:00] Nobody, you know, funding agency doesn't trust the researchers, but I found that trust is absolutely essential in this, you know, that they must trust you and we must trust them because I've said once we back someone, they can go anywhere or anywhere in any direction they want.
You know, you can only do that. If there's mutual trust. And if they come across problems as inevitably, they will, you know, things, you know, then they come to us and say, look, we've got this problem, you know, can you help us to solve it? And, you know, and we, we took up a problem with a university or something like that.
And we w we helped them along. And this is why when venture research was closed down in 1990, this service was no longer available. And so the 14 people who made, who made major breakthroughs subsequently, and now that's a minimum. I think there are, it would be much greater if we'd have had the support, if I was able to provide this, the support right through, right through to today.
Yeah. [00:32:00] And, and, and so. Can we dig into how you build trust with researchers. So you, you have a lot of conversations with them. and like, but can you, can you unpack that? Like, I, I want to we'll have the same problem in everyday life. You know, you meet someone and you talk to them, you know, not about research.
You don't have to think about research, you know? do you trust somebody? how do, how, how do you, how do you reveal your trust? How do you express it? How do they express it? And, it has to come, you know, by, by a multi, by a multitude of routes, just like in everyday life, you have to make up your mind that you would trust somebody eventually, and we'll go along with most things that they say.
So it is no more of them. It's no different from that. And, in fact I've found that, that the people who've been most receptive to what I've been saying have been nonscientists, you know, people like the [00:33:00] secretary I used to be, I wish to work in the cabinet office, the secretary of the cabinet Burke trend when I was there, he was, you know, he was instantly, so what we were trying to do, you know, and, I had an ally there.
Yeah. And, and yeah. And I guess why, why wasn't he? So, so if there were people in the government who were excited about this, like what sort of stopped him from being able to push through? He was, he, he, that was before I CA I went to BP and before I'd worked out the ideas of venture research, but I, I talked to him and I realized I could trust him.
You know, and, which is very unusual, you know, for a very senior person, to be able to do that. And, so we didn't discuss venture to search them because I hadn't, I hadn't taken up the cudgel so to speak when I, when I in, on the April, the eighth, 1980, I went to VP. Yeah. Got it and sort of [00:34:00] switching gears a little bit, something I loved and it's like, give me a completely different way of seeing the world in the book is, your.
Sort of your take down of the idea of high risk research, biggest high risk. Well, there's not, I, venture search was the lowest possible risk you can imagine, because I was convinced that they would, that the venture researchers would do something of value. You wouldn't be able to predict what it was, but they would do something of value and only had to do with, to keep talking to them.
Yeah. And, unfortunately we, we can't show the graph, but I, I just, the, the sort of concept of, like with cutting edge research, the fact that there's just uncertainty about what the like, underlying probability distributions even look like. Right? Like, and, and the fact that the researcher actually knows that distribution so much more than anybody else, [00:35:00] It's just a, a much, much better way of thinking about it.
because I think that people really do think of like high risk research as sort of just like this like portfolio approach to, to the world. And it's like, okay, well, like what's our expected, and this actually goes back to the, the, the idea of expected value where, why it's, it's so hard to talk about it in those terms, because.
we don't know the underlying distributions. Right? Well, have why should a funding agency support high risk research? When what they're really saying is that we expect you to fail. That's what high risk means we expect you to fail. So why, why should either we measure as the researchers or the funding agency do that?
I mean our approach, which goes to the lowest possible risk and the highest possible gain, much more. It's much more accessible now. Not everyone of course can be a venture [00:36:00] researcher, but, I'm convinced that every serious minded researcher, at least once in a, in, in, in a scientific career will come across an idea that will transform his is a local, field.
Yeah. he, he, he did not share it or he did not reveal it to the, to peer review because he hasn't yet proved it. Yeah. Peer review only works sort of ad hoc, you know, sort of, so, after the events, so to speak, when you've actually shown that it will work, then they can say whether it's good or not.
Yeah. And I guess, I don't know if you've been paying attention to sort of like the, the meta discussion around scientific stagnation. but there's, there's sort of like the argument that we've picked, although the low-hanging fruit of, of the physical world, What do you w what, and like, I get the [00:37:00] impression that you don't agree with that.
So I, I always looking for sort of good counter arguments. I don't agree with that because, we're looking for people who will, grow new types of fruit. Or if you take the continental view, you know, that, that our field is a bit like a country. And, when the, you know, people like Einstein discover that country, then it leads to, to, to a wave of new research, but eventually.
Then the field becomes paid out and it gets more and more difficult to make it difficult to make a new discovery. What if somebody comes along and says, there's a new continent there and I want to, I want to create it. Yeah. And they can convince you that it exists. So, either the, you know, the low hanging fruit thing, which is, works very well for particular types of fruit.
But what if you come up with a new idea for fruit and you come. And that actually sort of ties back to [00:38:00] the peer review argument, which is that, peer review is very bad at allowing, sort of like new fields and therefore new contents orchards to exist. We are, we all an endowed with a w w w with a creative spirit.
You know, and, it's this fundamental creative spirit that we all have and scientists, you know, perhaps, to a, to a greater degree than others though. I'm not convinced of that. and, you cannot expect that their view of the world completely individual view of the world. Just if I have consensus.
Yeah, not immediately. You can't do it right away. I mean, no, the scientists, you know, major discoveries have not been greeted with a claim. Science, Einstein Einstein's discovery were called in the times newspaper. And one is when he wrote his famous paper on relativity and the front to come and sense.
That's what the time [00:39:00] said.
And so it was, it wasn't a front to common sense. Yeah. It should be fair. It's still, it's still sort of is right. Like you in like, you know, it was like the universe is curved and it's like that, that actually doesn't. Even jive with my comments, that I'll be honest. university's a very, very big place.
Yes. It's very, a very weird place, right? Like when you start really looking at it. Yeah. And you know, the, the, the, the, the gravitational constant, which is, the Hubble constant. So, is, is, is one 80, sorry. Th well, there's some dispute about what it is, but it's a tiny amount per million years, you know, it's a tiny difference from what we see now, how the, it would be difficult to detect.
Have you, have you said, you know, [00:40:00] you've gotta look for this and this is what people are doing. Yeah. Yeah. It's something, something that I wonder. And I'm not sure like how this sort of jives with, with venture research. But what I feel like it has also happened is, people have become so specialized in like theory or experimentation or, like engineering or development, that.
And like part of where, these, these new fields come from is people, sort of interacting with people that they wouldn't normally interact with. and, and so did you, did you find yourself sort of beyond that, like they're, they're the, the sort of group meetings, of the venture research community, but did you, did you find yourself, Sort of like pushing people to interact in ways that they wouldn't have otherwise interacted with.
No, we never push people that way. there, there were always [00:41:00] any new interaction that came from our meeting, from the meetings they were derived in exclusively from the scientists. I mean, we w we may make one or two suggestions about a group. Well, I did, we would do, we did. In fact, the, the ant people.
we're working, in the field of distributed intelligence. Now I happen to know there was a unit at the university of Edinburgh that was doing this, that this very work distributed computing, and they weren't, there were one or two experts. So I went to them and said, do you have somebody who might be interested in joining the group?
And they did a man called Tuft and he went down and he, and he did, and it was a very productive exchange. But that was very rare. I mean, that, that happened, but they, the user can the other way, got it. I don't know. Maybe, maybe, or the, you know, I forgotten, it's a long time ago, you know? but, I'm just always interested in, sort of improving my mental models of like, how, like, sort of [00:42:00] the, the question that everybody have of like, where do ideas come from, right.
Like, and it's like, how important is sort of like cross cross-pollination, to sort of, to, to creating new areas. Actually I'm really interested in what the day-to-day of running VPs venture research was like. I kind of in my head, imagine you like just flying around the world, and sort of like meeting scientists and, and sort of, did you, have you ever watched the Avengers?
I imagine you like Nick fury. Sort of like going around to different superheroes, and sort of say like, alright, like we're gonna, we're gonna form a team. yeah. W w what was that like? Well, I'll tell you, it was a, a very difficult problem because when I first arrived, I was, you know, a single person in a single room.
and, so, the research director and, you know, the [00:43:00] guy who was responsible for BPS main research activities. And he spent about 2 billion pounds a year, you know, on, on he had, and he had 2000 people working for him and, he he's, he thought I was mainly harmless, you know, so, but as the, as the, as the decade wore on, then, it became obvious because I always try to involve, see in here.
BP, directors in what we were doing. I always invited them to our conferences, for example. And even the chairman, you know, came down and other senior directors came down and they could see for themselves that what I was talking was not bullshit, you know, what really serious. And, and so the idea became.
embedded in, in, in, in, in a few recess director's minds that the bang, the Braven was having a bigger bang for book Cadogan will the research director and it's 2 billion a year that he was [00:44:00] spending. And, and this fed back on, on, on to the research directors approach to me and the increasingly saw me as a threat rather than as an opportunity.
And eventually. In 1990, he won and we were closed down. I got a phone call from New Zealand on, on March the eighth, 1990 from New Zealand, the man, the guy, the guy, or just the, the, research director, had just retired Bob and he gave me all the freedom. I, what I wanted. And he retired in, in 1989, it was succeeded by Buzzle Butler and Buzzle Butler was, well, I won't say what I think of him.
he, he phoned me for ISA from New Zealand and, and his first thought first was hello, Don venture search has closed down. The BP can no longer afford the drain on its resources, BP. I was spending then [00:45:00] five millions a year when, you know, managing directors didn't get out of bed unless it was at least a billion.
It, it's funny how people can get very attached to like even comparatively small amounts of money. Well, people see, tend to see value in cost. You see? and so, if a university adopts venture to search, which I hope they will then, you know, they can't release, there's no glory in spending nothing a year.
Even if you have an arrangement for looking for these people, you know, even a UCL, you know, it's been 150,000 in 10 years, but you know, that's about the right number. You know, we're talking like 500 people in a century over the whole world. So any single university is likely to have one or maybe two in a decade.
And so, [00:46:00] but if the arrangements were set up so that people could come forward with their ideas to talk with senior people in the university, people who had given up their own research, like I have, and you take the carrier's pleasure and their discoveries. Then, if you can find some people such that such people than ever few universities were able to do this, then it would solve the problem.
And so that's what we're working on right now. So as soon as I get my book, I'll be sending it to various, which is the due to come this week. I think, you know, my, the 50 copies that Stripe send me and I can send these out. I'm not very optimistic. I'm afraid. Okay. Okay. Well, I am, perhaps I, I realized I realized, foolishly, but my, my, my theory is that, If you're not optimistic, then you're sort of doomed to failure.
Like, like the, the, the [00:47:00] non optimism makes like, it, it, reinforces itself, right? Like, so, so if you're pessimistic, then it will make itself come true. we sort of, yeah, so, so we, so we need to be optimistic and, and I guess like, with, with the universities today, Like, what did they, so like if, if the money were there, like if, if the money were coming in to, to researchers, universities don't have any problem with sort of people being there, doing work as long as, as the funding is coming from somewhere else with no strings attached.
Right? Yep. Yeah. Okay. So let me, every university has, I mean, UCL, I mean, it has a budget of a billion pounds, you know, it's a big university, so we're asking for a tiny amount of money, you know, the, and even that is an over estimate, you know, because most years expenditure will be zero, [00:48:00] you know, and it's only, but to have that, to be able to call on occasionally.
something like 150 200,000 pounds a year. So 200,000 pounds for three years, sorry. it would be no big commitment for them to enter into it, especially if you could re entertain the hope that in a few years, the, the scientists would, would make the transmit that the transition into the mainstream and then back external funding.
And just what I've done. And so, so I know that a couple of universities do give, like new professors a year or two of funding. Well, that's right. I mean, people taking new jobs are in th th their, their maximum creativity then. And so universities, it's very good investment for them, but, but, but, but, an academic now has to look [00:49:00] forward to what will happen when this, when this funding ends.
Right. You know, and will he be well-placed and he's got to engineer his, his position to be well-placed to, to attract funds. And so a year or two, not enough to do venture research. And so they just, you know, it, it works, but only to a very limited extent. Yeah. And the, and the, the incentive sort of cascade backwards.
Right. Cause you're looking at, and you're like, okay, well, I'm going to need to get grants. And in order to get those grants, I'm going to need to have, do you have done peer reviewed research? So I better get started on that now so that it has to start thinking about that. Yeah, no, that, that makes a lot of sense.
so I guess in including, What besides simply just like reading the book and thinking about, venture research. What, what is something that you think people should be thinking about [00:50:00] that they're not thinking about enough?
Well, I, I don't think you can, so you can say it like that. I mean, if you're, if you're a venture researcher or a budding venture search, then you'll have an idea and you'll, always wants to be returning to it. So, I mean, the creation of venture research therefore is a happy coincidence. You know, that it's a meeting of, of, of similar minds, if you like.
And I provided the opportunity to those, 40 people, that we backed over the 10 years to do their thing. but it was a partnership. It was a partnership between us and them. I was taking a risk, you know, with BP and, you know, having to solve the problems. I had to do all the other things you say, you know, like travel the world and give, to get, cause I didn't believe we could advertise.
I didn't, I didn't think we could advertise, you know, in journals and say, you know, we wanted good ideas. I had to go to universities and give talks about venture to search while people were doing. [00:51:00] And the state of science now. Yeah. And then invite proposals and then sit and listen to what people came up with.
And, at each university I might get in an afternoon, I may get 20 or 30 proposals. I mean, most of them just so you as a new source of money. You know, and that was always a problem we had, even with venture researchers was convincing them that even though we were the BP venture research unit, we were not interested in getting oil out of the ground.
This could help the research director and I wouldn't trust us on what he was trying to do. So I had to find a way of, of, so our strategy was completely different. So the search directors. So we're not in direct competition, but he did see me as getting direct competition because they, the senior directors, you know, were saying the bang for buck that blaming God is higher than yours.
I didn't say that they did. And actually, what, what was, what is the thinking behind, Not putting [00:52:00] out a sort of like a broad, call for, for applications, but instead, going and giving a talk and then, and talking to people because my, like my gut says that makes a lot of sense, but I'm not quite sure I can pick apart.
Why. Well, venture searches, Nobel prize winners are a very special breed, you know, they do not respond to a, to opportunity. I mean, they create, they create their own opportunity and they are convinced of their particular view of the world will eventually be proved. Right. And hopefully.
well, for the few we managed to help, we, we enable them to do that, but, other people just happened to have to cut their clamps according to the phones that are available and have to keep doing that. So I, I, I think that, people's view is, is, of the world is, is created within what the, within themselves, in this, within their thought processes, [00:53:00] their thought processes on their creative spirit, you know, this thing, which we, we all have, allows, them to do.
I mean, people like, like Einstein, you know, w w when he, he looked at the, at the world without any feedback from anyone. You know, he didn't read the literature, he didn't cite any publication in this, you know, it didn't say anything. And his Anna's mirabilis is three papers and max playing catheter to decide whether or not he was the editor of the journal that he submitted his papers to.
And he had to decide whether we should publish these or sub subject them to the usual references, but he didn't and he just published them. And th th they attracted a lot of criticism that said the times for it, it's always in the front of common sense, but there's other two work, you know, for the, for the conductivity and, Brownian motion.
I mean, they were major pieces of work, but he did that [00:54:00] without talking to anybody. I mean, apart from, you know, mathematical advice and things like that, which had got from various people from time to time. Yeah. So, so to, to, to sort of pull that back to the strategy for teasing out, the, like the, the high quality applicants, the hypothesis would be that like, they, they don't even, they wouldn't even be reading the, like the journal where you'd be advertising that you want applications and you sort of have to like really go and, and get in their face.
Yes, you have to let it be. You have to create the environment that allows them to write to you or to contact you, or to give you a phone call and say, I want to do this. You know? And, I remember I got a phone call once from, from a lunatic who said, I have a way of launching satellites, which has been much cheaper than, than anyone else has ever had.
And I said, Oh, what do you want to do? He said, Oh, I want to build a building a hundred miles high. And, and then throw out of [00:55:00] the window, you know, there's, there's been, these objects and there were, there would be an arbiter immediately. And so they would, but I asked him about, you know, what do you think are the limits on, on growth, you know, on, on, on, on building, what would the foundations for a hundred mile high building?
And there was just silence then, you know, cause he realized that the Earth's crust would not support. And what's the highest structure on the world Mount Everest high is that five miles. So Y you know, w how are you going to construct something which is a hundred miles high? So, I mean, that doesn't matter.
It's just an anecdote of a, of a phone call I got, but that's what, that's what constituted, And initial approach to us. That's all we asked for, that the person would, was a ring or write a paragraph or whatever it was and saying, this is what I want to do. Yeah. And you would then take them there.
Yeah. That's. [00:56:00] I like that a lot, because it's, it's very, it's almost the opposite of the approach that I've seen, that you you've seen, that there are like many other places. Like you look at how, like DARPA or bell labs does it, did it. and they it's like almost the opposite where they would only ever go and be like, you, like, we want you to come and like do some awesome stuff.
And so it was it's like that, like push versus pull in, in getting people into the. The the organization is, is an interesting dynamic. well, I spoke, I spoke to somebody in the cabinet office recently about that, but, you know, he, he, he knew about it. He learned, he learned about the publication of the book and he said that the government was saying the British government were thinking of creating DARPA in Britain.
And I didn't think it would be a very good idea. Because not for venture to search, it would be good for other things. but, DARPA 10, it's a bit like venture capital, you know, they know what they want to [00:57:00] do. And, when I was no venture to searcher would be able to point to specific benefits flowing from their work, right at the beginning, it would not be able to do that.
And so therefore they would be disqualified from applying. Yeah, I think it's actually, a really important distinction that you just made because that like what, when people say like, like research is broken, my, my hypothesis is that there is actually that they're describing at least two completely distinct problems where there's the one problem of sort of, like making more.
Technology. And then there's the other problem of like discovering more new areas of knowledge. And, and venture research is very much targeted at the latter. and w distinctly from the former new fruits and new continents, you know, that's what we're concentrating on. You know, [00:58:00] the people, you know, completely new consonants, completely new fruits.
So there'll be low hanging fruit will come from that, from that fruit. And, yeah, that's what we're trying to do.
I think one of the biggest takeaways from this conversation for me, that I just want to double click on is. Donald's assertion that the line between genius and crack pot is not as thin as I. Used to believe. And that it may be possible to tell the difference. Bye. Really. Paying attention to how precise someone's ideas.
Uh, I'm still sort of processing that, but it's. An important thing for us to think about