Research :: Basic research – Is it really worth it?

Basic research, or research where the primary goal is the advancement of human knowledge and theoretical understanding, has throughout its history been pressed by politicians and the public to justify its existence.

“Basic research has the air of being a luxury for extravagant scientists who indulge in their hobbies at taxpayer?s expense” said Christoph Kratky, President of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) who organised the conference “Science Impact: Rethinking the Impact of Basic Research on Society and the Economy”, a conference held 10-11 May, in Vienna, jointly with the European Science Foundation (ESF).

Leading economists, sociologists and scientific historians within the growing field of science policy research came together to present examples which dispel such notions, by illustrating the tangible economic and societal benefits it can bring.

The Scandinavian example

Austrian economist, Karl Aiginger, of the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO), presented his findings on the macro-economic benefits that can be attained through basic research.

Referring to the fact that economic growth in the EU-15 states had remained at 10.7 per cent in the last five years, as opposed to 26 per cent for the world in the same period, Aiginger noted: “Europe is now growing at a much lower pace than the United States. Up until 1995 [when the decline began] Europe had managed to catch up with the US in terms of their head start on technology. Since then we have been on a decline. Europe is now missing out on an economic boom.

“What went wrong” There are number of answers to be found in technology because two of the leading areas of technology ? ICT and biotech, are not located in Europe.

“Investment in research, but also investment in education and in modern technological infrastructure are the future investments are a key pillar of the Lisbon strategy and here we have missed out on attaining these goals.

By contrast, Aiginger found that areas of Europe that have invested in research have also seen significant returns.

“There is one area in the group that was able to continue growth throughout the 1990s and that was Scandinavia. What exactly did they do differently”

“By matching US investment with 2.6 per cent of GDP [into basic research], in contrast to 1.9% by the EU-15, they were not paralysed in growth but were able to pursue it.”

Europe, he pointed out, has in the post-war era focused on ecological and societal goals, and the creation of state welfare under the so-called European Social Model. Given such factors as an aging population the model can only be supported through European economies that show far greater levels of growth.

“This model also focuses on social research, health and the environment. In a nutshell, we have a lot of catching up to do and this is very much under-estimated from country to country.

He felt that Europe must shift its focus away from production and towards design and innovation, comparing the European situation as being analogous to Japan.

“The structure of the European economy and the European research environment were very good for playing catch-up to the US, but has not been amenable for being amongst the forerunners. This of course is very much tied into basic research.

“This also happened to Japan. In 1990 while I was in MIT we had a lot of Japanese students and we were all inundated with information about Japan would be taking over the United States in the next ten years. As we saw, this was not the case. There too their structure was very amenable to catch-up, but not innovation.”

Aiginger?s comments were reiterated by Haim Harari of the Weizman Institute of Science, Israel, who highlighted the qualitative nature of technological advancement.

“The electron is celebrating this year its 110th birthday. It was discovered 110 years ago in 1897. And it is fair to say that more than 50 per cent of the world economy is now based on our understanding and knowledge of the properties of the electron.

“No one could have predicted this 110 years ago ? nobody could have predicted it even 50 years ago.

Likening scientific research to a child that must be nurtured, cared for and understood before becoming a useful citizen, Harari said:

“Nobody asks ?Why do you feed your baby ?there?s nothing useful coming out of it”?. Some are early bloomers, some are late. It?s unpredictable.

“If you have too few children you will not have enough success, and if you have too many you cannot give all of them enough attention and resources. That is true of children and of basic research.”

Basic to applied

Many important discoveries, Harari pointed out; arise from basic research where the final application was beyond the imagination of the early-stage researchers.

“This goes all the way back to Farraday?s invention of electricity and all the famous stories connected to it, lasers ? the inventors didn?t even dream of their enormous applications from medicine to material sciences to everything else ? polymers, plastic materials and telecommunication industry,” he said.

The theory of numbers, an ancient field of mathematics, had been thought of as an esoteric, trivial pursuit even within the wider scientific community. Now though, Harari noted, it is essential the field of cryptography and securing data on the Internet.

“Everything you do know through the Internet ? banking, shopping, communication and all the military deciphering encoding is entirely based on development in the field of numbers.

As a further example from the modern era, Harari cited the case of Computerised Tomography, which was invented by particle physicists in the 1960s conducting research into particle collisions “for their own selfish benefit”. During the course of their research into finding an accurate solution for 3D imaging of colliding particles, they had unwittingly stumbled upon perhaps one of the greatest medical inventions of the 20th century.

This transition, Harari felt, is beginning to make the traditional definitions of ?basic? and ?applied? research redundant, especially in fields such as biotechnology and electronics where the rate of progress is particularly accelerated.

“There are steps that are manifestly basic. There are steps which are manifestly applied. There are many steps which are borderline ? and I think that it doesn?t even serve any purpose to work too hard on the definitions. There?s so many scientific fields today that we can?t even begin to know whether it?s physics or chemistry or biology. If it?s good science, why should you care””

Need for funding

The experts present were unanimous and unequivocal in their call for greater funding for basic research, and on its long-term benefits for society. Questioned on whether the economic benefits seen in rich countries are truly created by research, as opposed to countries that are already rich being able to indulge in more research, Aiginger replied:

“The effect is causal ? by two channels. Firstly, because research creates new products. Look at products which enjoin the Information Communication Technology sector ? they didn?t exist 10 years ago and were made possible by ICT. “

“The second channel is that is makes the production of goods cheaper ? you see it in all Information Technology what a handset is worth is decreasing in price from decade to decade that means that more people can use it, that the technology is spreading.

According to his research, Aiginger made a number of quantitative (albeit ?ballpark?) assertions, including: “If we invest 1m Euros in research then we create 50,000 new jobs. In all of the strategies we have calculated, research is the most effective strategy for applying public funds.

“There is no channel formula for the entire world, but, a very rough formula is that if you invest three per cent of your GDP in research you will get a three per cent growth rate.”

Issuing a word of caution, Aiginger noted: “Basic research also needs controls, strategies and competition. Of course we don?t know what the future holds in terms of applications and innovations but we have to tackle these issues all the same.”

The point was also picked up on by Harari, who said: “The more diversified the funding of basic research is the better.”

Furthermore, we must also have a greater awareness of how funding operates in Europe, according to Ian Halliday, President of the ESF. “Current measurements are rather misleading because Europe spends its money differently. Its funding styles, expectations and so on are very different. We need to look ways to break down these barriers,” he said.

Added Harari: “In the final analysis, basic research may only be a small fraction of our R&D, but 100% of our economic future.”

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