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Flight of Fancy

Do you practise safe science, or are you prepared to take some intellectual risks when it comes to your research? If so, you are in the minority. "Doing the thing that isn't dangerous is becoming the norm," says Keith Gore from cosmetic company L'Oréal. To encourage more young scientists to buck the trend, L'Oréal and the Royal Institution (RI) launched the Science Graduate of the Year competition.

This year's innovative investigator is Graham Taylor from the University of Oxford, who was awarded £6000 and life membership in the RI last week. Only the second person to hold the title, Taylor intends to use his prize money to further his research, which applies aerodynamic theory to biology and investigates how insects have evolved to overcome the problems of stability in flight.

The award is aimed at science graduates who have not (yet) submitted a thesis. This year's applicants were short-listed to six finalists who had a panel interview involving a short presentation and discussion. Baroness Susan Greenfield, director of the RI and one of the judges, explains that they were looking for an aptitude for "thinking outside the box" and describes the award as "showcasing a novel way of thinking." According to Gore, the trend towards guarded rather than groundbreaking science is down to the way it's funded. The current research climate makes it easier for projects with guaranteed results to get funding than those that carry a risk. However, innovative science should not be confused with controversial science. Applicants for the 2001 award came from a diverse range of backgrounds including chemistry and the life sciences, says Gail Cardew, head of programmes at the RI, "not just genetics and cloning."

What else was the panel looking for? "The best scientific research is driven by curiosity, the courage to challenge existing dogmas, and a sense of excitement and fun," explains Greenfield. Twenty-four-year-old Taylor "amazed us with his work in several different disciplines," says Cardew. Stability problems have faced aircraft designers since the Wright brothers first took to the air, but as so often happens, nature has it sussed. Taylor is the first scientist to have developed a reliable technique to measure the dynamic forces and torques produced by flying insects. His findings have the potential to revolutionise aeronautical engineering, especially in the development of micro air vehicles, small 15-cm machines that are used for reconnaissance and need to be highly manoeuverable. While this is difficult using conventional means, Taylor hopes his findings will be used to develop mini-aircraft that mimic insect flight.

"This award will be a great boost to my research," he says, especially since "I intend to use the money to fund a research project on canopy insects that I'm planning in Venezuela next year." However, original research alone is not enough to win this award. Applicants must also be passionate about their science and able to convey their ideas to a lay audience, especially as part of the prize is giving a public lecture at the RI. "I'm also very excited at having an opportunity to speak at the Royal Institution--it's a tremendous privilege," says Taylor. There is also the opportunity to give a follow-up lecture in Paris, the site of L'Oréal's head office. L'Oréal aim to raise the profile of their own scientific research (they employ over 2000 research staff) by funding initiatives such as this award.

As well as making Taylor's trip to Venezuela a reality, it also opens up new opportunities for his future. "In terms of career plans it allows me to apply for junior fellowships," says Taylor. He recommends that other young scientists apply for the award and suggests that they should "not be put off by the title--it's rather scary." One disappointing aspect of the award for L'Oréal and the RI was the shortage of female applicants. Both Gore and Greenfield put it down to a lack of assertiveness amongst female scientists. Would they like to see more women apply? "Definitely," says Greenfield.

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