The breakthroughs of the future are beyond our dreams

A member of the media takes pictures of the parabolic antennas of the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array) project at the El Llano de Chajnantor in the Atacama desert, some 1730 km (1074 miles) north of Santiago and 5000 metres above sea level, March 12, 2013.

Blue sky research matters Image: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Alice Gast
President, Imperial College London
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As the boundaries blur between the cyber and physical worlds, we have the potential for greater economic growth, new innovations and a better way of life.

This “fourth industrial revolution” could transform our lives, but only if fundamental research is embedded at its core.

While the integration of big data, interconnected sensors and machines with additive manufacturing processes may be driving this revolution, private sector R&D cannot do this alone. Businesses are inevitably geared towards short and medium-term applications. Underpinning this fourth industrial revolution is fundamental research led by universities.

The “perfect lens” and blue skies research

As a growing number of industry and university leaders recognise, much academic research has become too focused on short-term answers to current needs. Venture capitalist Lucy Marcus warns that “without blue skies research there is no long-term future for research at all and industry-led research will become nothing more than problem solving and decreasingly capable”. Companies want universities to take on long range, deeper, open-ended research that will provide the truly game-changing breakthroughs that the world needs – the kind that are driving the fourth industrial revolution.

Theoretical physicist Sir John Pendry took just this approach when he recently revived the decades-old work of little known Russian scientist Victor Veselago and the idea of a “perfect lens” that would create images at a finer resolution than the wavelength of light: something never seen in nature. Many saw the concept as theoretically impossible, let alone commercially viable.

From invisibility cloaks to swimming microrobots

Pendry not only went on to prove that a perfect lens can exist, he invented a totally new class of materials. His studies of the interactions between light and metals have given rise to metamaterials: smart materials engineered to have properties beyond those known in nature. Apart from new superlenses that surpass the diffraction limit, metamaterials are allowing manufacturers to produce high-performance antennas, seismic protection for buildings, and invisibility cloaks. The commercial potential is huge, despite their arcane academic origins.

The benefits of fundamental research like this may remain oblique for some time, and few institutions but a research-intensive university could pursue it. As Sir John’s work reminds us, patient support of risky ideas is essential. A key element of Imperial’s strategy over the next five years is the support of promising new areas of research even in the absence of initial outside funding. We have also launched a joint seed fund with MIT to allow researchers to collaborate on “risky” research ideas, long before their utility has been proven.

However, the support of universities is not enough. For blue skies research to be effective, government, businesses, and philanthropists need to demonstrate their commitment to its importance. The problems facing the world today are not just economic in nature, but include the broad range of societal issues. A focus solely on short-term financial impact misses the discoveries that improve the quality of life for millions.

Technological change allows us to take many more such risks within academic environments. In medicine, advances in rapid prototyping technologies, micro-fabrication and micro-machining processes are creating a new age of cyber-physical systems. Again, the fourth industrial revolution has its roots in academia. Imperial Professor Guang-Zhong Yang’s research into medical robotics has led to the development of swimming microrobots that travel through the bloodstream for targeted drug delivery, as well as ultra-small instruments for microsurgery. These are all being created within his lab and the distance between conception and delivery is shrinking.

The future of materials: “ideas not yet dreamt of”

Davos 2016 participants will hear more about the unanticipated applications of academic research during an IdeasLab session on the future of materials. Neil Alford, a Professor of Engineering at Imperial, will talk about his group’s research into why resonators, such as those used to pick out radio signal frequencies in mobile phones, are so poor.

They found techniques that produced the most efficient resonators - with the lowest loss structures - ever recorded at room temperature. This ultimately led the team on a tangent resulting in the world’s first ever room-temperature Microwave laser, or Maser - something that had baffled scientists for the last 60 years. The breakthrough has far-reaching potential from medical diagnostics to the creation of very low noise amplifiers for a range of electronics.

Universities are especially well-placed to work on fundamental blue-skies research. We are used to working in areas full of unknowns and where the results can lead to the creation of technologies we have not yet dreamt of. Universities provide the crucible for completely new areas of science and technology to emerge, like biomedical engineering, data science and synthetic biology; and the business opportunities will follow.

The fourth industrial revolution is rightly gaining government and private sector support around the world. It is time to recognise the important role of university research in pushing forward this new era.

Author: Alice Gast is the President of Imperial College London. She is participating in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos.

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