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How investing in big science benefits industrial innovation

big science investments

Big science projects advance scientific understanding with the potential for solving existential threats to humanity. Image: UNSPLASH/Ryo Tanaka

David Gann
Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Development and External Affairs, University of Oxford
Mark Dodgson
Emeritus Professor, University of Queensland
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda

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  • Big science projects advance our scientific understanding with the potential for solving existential threats to humanity and are therefore fundamentally important for humankind.
  • The contributions made by big science projects to industrial innovation are substantial, but they are often unpredictable and underappreciated.
  • But: valuable skills are developed in all stages of big science projects that have potential use in industry.

Big science projects increase knowledge about phenomena that are fundamentally important for humankind. Projects such as CERN, ITER, the international fusion project in France, the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope in Australia and South Africa, and the International Space Station advance scientific understanding with the potential for solving existential threats to humanity. Collectively they have budgets of hundreds of billions of dollars and produce major benefits for industry.

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The particle physics laboratory CERN, for example, aims to understand the conditions that existed within a billionth of a second of the Big Bang, and it has had significant impacts on industry and society, from computer science to health and civil engineering.

The contributions made by big science projects to industrial innovation are, however, often both unpredictable and underappreciated. The world wide web and the laser are classic examples of tools developed to help undertake scientific experiments. Some of these benefits are planned and expected, some occur through serendipity: no one foresaw the industrial applications of the web or lasers. The most important industrial innovations resulting from big science investments can occur when focus is directed towards conducting the most adventurous science, rather than their commercial outcomes.

Benefits to industry are realised early on, upstream in creating and developing the construction and engineering capabilities and innovations in supply chains to deliver large and complex scientific facilities and equipment. They extend downstream through commercialisation and industrial application of innovative technologies and outcomes that emerge from science. These benefits are allied to activities undertaken midstream, or instream, through the myriad collaborations and solutions provided by industry necessary for the conduct of large scale experiments. Valuable skills are developed in all stages of big science projects that have potential use in industry.

Addressing climate change and benefitting industry: the case of fusion power

Just as science has created a path through the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial for solving the climate emergency. While much of the focus is necessarily on immediate reduction of carbon producing technologies, longer term basic research, conducted at pace and scale, is critically important. Meeting the ambitions of COP26 requires the creation of carbon free, safe and clean methods for producing electricity, and there are massive challenges to be faced if we are to achieve net zero.

Fusion power offers a path towards a clean and sustainable energy mix. Fusion research is advancing rapidly, and recognizing its potential, governments are investing significantly, alongside increasing interest from the private sector. The UK government recently published its fusion strategy, outlining how it will leverage scientific, commercial and international leadership to deliver fusion energy.

Fusion research illustrates the many ways that immensely complex and difficult scientific projects can stimulate innovations in industry.

Upstream innovations from fusion research

Installation of the first vacuum vessel segment. Image: ITER

Manufacturing and constructing ITER's facilities has enhanced industrial capabilities and stimulated innovations upstream. A review by the European Commission found the project will generate more value than it costs, and that companies working for ITER improved their capabilities and opportunities outside of fusion. The report found that as a result of their ITER contracts 12% of industrial participants developed new cutting edge technologies for use in areas other than fusion. For example, companies have risen to the challenge of creating the world’s largest magnets and they have developed technology for precision welding of stainless steel vacuum vessel on a scale never seen before.

UK firms, for example, have already benefited from well over £500m specialist engineering and technology contracts to build ITER, and they have extended and deepened their capabilities in the process.

In his book about ITER, Michel Claessens reports cases of firms in other areas which improved their technological skills through working on fusion with ITER. The construction of the project itself has involved significant advances: it has, for example, used two cranes capable of lifting the equivalent of four fully laden Boeing 747s. Guarantees in the contracts for big science projects can reduce the risks for industry partners investing in their own R&D.

Downstream innovations from fusion research

Joint European Torus, the world’s highest performing fusion machine. Image: JET

JET, the European fusion experiment based at the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), involves a complex machine that experiences vast heat and material changes that require remote handling technologies. The severe demands of the science has provided extensive opportunities for industry. RACE, the Remote Applications in Challenging Environments programme, which supports and sits alongside JET, is developing robotic technologies that can be used in a variety of extreme conditions found in industries including nuclear, petrochemicals, space, construction and mining.

Oxbotica autonomous vehicle prototyp. Image: Oxbotica.

Oxbotica is a related Oxford University spinoff, is developing autonomous vehicle software using 10km of on site private roads at the UKAEA to carry out vehicle testing. Oxbotica uses computer vision, machine learning and artificial intelligence to enable vehicles to operate autonomously in any environment in sectors including aerospace, automotive, construction, logistics and mining.

More focus on big science through instream innovations

Both upstream and downstream innovations derive from investments instream, necessary for the conduct of scientific experiments. Scientific projects that have the most demanding new requirements in order to undertake experiments can have the highest potential for upstream and downstream benefits. In the longterm this means that industry can benefit most when scientific projects are at their most ambitious.

Managers of big science projects need to balance ambition and costs of their experiments, mindful of the opportunities to plan and encourage industrial collaboration and the economic benefits this can bring.

When scientists and their support teams design experiments to address the most difficult and demanding scientific problems, their depth of knowledge and ingenuity often produces highly imaginative, innovative, and practical solutions. Industry has the opportunity to benefit from these solutions, which would not emerge without investment in basic science and accessing the knowledge and skills scientists and their support teams possess. Just as the development of COVID-19 vaccines relied on decades of fundamental research, solutions to other existential threats will similarly draw on knowledge and expertise accumulated over many years.

Greater scientific risk can have greater industrial benefit

Governments that fund big science projects assess the value of their returns to industry and the economy. Proposals for investments in big science are keen to emphasize these returns and projects often have significant processes in place to assist, for example, with the commercialization of emerging intellectual property. More attention needs to be placed, however, on the instream activities necessary to conduct experiments, irrespective of their identifiable benefits to industry. The very act of conducting complex and difficult experiments will produce benefits that may be unplanned and unseen. Challenges facing experiments in field such a data management, materials, equipment and facilities may result in innovations driven by scientific demands with no immediate concern for industrial benefits, but may produce benefits from businesses upstream and downstream.

Faced with all the problems facing the world in areas such as health and climate, governments need to be bold in their investment decisions for audacious, challenging projects. When scientists and engineers focus on overcoming the complex problems necessary to conduct experiments they create innovations that benefit industry. Solving major challenges, and creating new industrial capabilities from investments in science, involves collaboration between research and industry. Major benefits for industry may accrue, however, when the focus is the scientific needs of the experiment, rather than opportunities for business.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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