Is there any justification for spending public money on fundamental scientific research for which there is no obvious potential for technological application, wealth creation, or any obvious purpose other than the advancement of human knowledge? If the decision were left to the short-sighted or those with no appreciation of what it is to see the wider horizon of blue skies research then it is unlikely that budgets would ever be stretched beyond funding the kind of research that provides almost instantaneous gratification, immediate payback, and obvious applications.
Jean-Jacques Salomon emeritus Professor of Technology and Society and the Director of the Centre Science, Technologie et Société, Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM), in Paris, France, explains that there is no way to measure the pay-off of basic research activities. He suggests that the reason governments deem to spend taxpayers’ money in this area is actually quite ideological rather than bearing the stamp of economic common sense.
Writing in the International Journal of Technological Learning, Innovation and Development (2007, 1, 125-135), he explains that even in times of privatisation, liberalisation, and reduced state intervention, there are good reasons for such public investments. But, how much is enough and how much would be too much?
Many of those in the world of commercial science would perhaps see any spending on fundamental science as untenable unless there were at least some vague opportunity for commercial exploitation of the results within a reasonable timeframe. In contrast the scientists in academia carrying out fundamental research see it as an essential part of any nation’s science base. They often cite the case of the molecule that fell to earth, buckminsterfullerene. The discovery of the all-carbon C60 molecule emerged from fundamental science that went even beyond blue skies into interstellar chemistry. Surely, this area of research could have no earthly application?
Well, yes and no. Buckminsterfullerene itself is yet to demonstrate any potent commercial viability, but on the other hand, without the discovery of that unique molecule we may not have seen the development of the so-called buckytubes, the elongated cousins of buckminsterfullerene known more formally as carbon nanotubes.
Fundamental, basic, or pure research is a fuzzy concept. There are of course, free-floating ideas that are perhaps nothing more than the rhetorical quests of scientists given the freedom to explore fully, but there are also designer labs that work on esoteric concepts, maverick hypotheses, and bizarre theoretical notions, purely with the aim of converting their outputs into something more tangible. That’s not to say they are commercially driven, just that they know that if only they can meld the right ingredients in the right proportions then something useful must emerge.
As Harvey Brooks said, “Basic science per se, contributes to culture, it contributes to our social well-being, including national defence, and public health; to our economic well-being, and it is an essential element of the education not only of scientists, but also of the population as a whole.” Can you put a price on that? Well, governments must, Brooks is on record as suggesting that a 15% annual increase is minimal in order to cope with the forecast population of graduates students and faculty. But, Salomon points out that there is no fixed ratio between the amount of resources to which basic research can aspire and those devoted to other research activities.
In terms of fundamentals in Europe, Salomon suggests that the new European Research Council will be in a position to contribute to improvement of basic science. He asks whether assessing R&D indicators should therefore be part of the default responsibilities of any assessment of how well pure science should be funded.
Salomon, J. (2007). Why sustain fundamental research? International Journal of Technological Learning, Innovation and Development, 2 (1) DOI: 10.1504/IJTLID.2007.015400