The signatories of the letter say the official channels for funding research depend far too heavily on so-called peer-review, where other scientists decide who gets money for research.

This arguably means that money only goes to projects that have a finite goal - and that is not the way truly important discoveries are made.

"They always look for a clearly identified goal," Prof Braben told VoR. "The sort of research I'm looking for is the cheapest there is because people don't know where they're going, where they're going to end up in 10 or 15 years' time.

"Somebody has to come up with £100,000 a year for experimental research, but that's peanuts in the scale of things!"

He has tried to talk to the funding organisations direct, but says the problem is that the people who control the purse strings will not concede that peer review contains a flaw, and that it's getting to the stage where support is only forthcoming if you can supply a result in advance.

Truly significant scientific breakthroughs cannot be achieved in the current climate, he says. 

His hope now is that a philanthropist will support himself and his colleagues, or support universities.

"That would take a lot more money, to support universities in the way they used to be supported; someone like a Rockefeller, with that kind of cash, who would adopt a university, and say, 'Okay, you are now going to work as you used to work before 1970. We are going to allow your staff total freedom, they can do what they want, they are not accountable."

He acknowledges that no scientist anywhere has the total freedom he is advocating. "This is a global problem, but it affects Britain particularly because we used to be very, very good at this kind of reserarch and now it's been stopped. The terms of reference for research councils have been changed. People who want to do really new things are taken off the list.

"You need someone at the top who understands science and how it works. A famous scientist once said, 'Science is what I do when I don't know what I'm doing'. Now it's all about 'impact' - 'What's the impact going to be?' 'What's the national benefit?'

"It's a very serious problem."

(VoR)