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Here's why we need to fund fundamental scientific research

Fundamental scientific research into fibre optics and digital imaging laid the foundation for today's networked society

Fundamental scientific research into fibre optics and digital imaging laid the foundation for today's networked society. Image: Pexels/Altered Snaps

Maria Leptin
President, European Research Council
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  • Fundamental scientific research is driven not by commercial or practical considerations, but by sheer scientific curiosity.
  • This type of research has laid the foundations for many of today's most important innovations.
  • Modern economies cannot afford to invest exclusively in applied research.

I am often asked to explain the need for funding fundamental scientific research, which is driven not by commercial or practical considerations but by sheer scientific curiosity. Especially in times of crisis or economic uncertainty, shouldn’t researchers be told to get down to practical matters and shouldn’t public funding be used to support research specifically to solve the problems that society faces?

But it is a fact that fundamental science drives innovation. Apart from the important cultural value of satisfying human curiosity and creating new knowledge, fundamental research leads to a better understanding of the natural world and establishes the essential foundation of knowledge needed to solve acute, practical problems.

The history of innovation shows that freedom for researchers to pursue their creative ideas, without strings attached, has been vital for countless discoveries, many of which have led to breakthrough technologies with enormous benefits for society and that have boosted the economy.

For example, the work by Charles Kuen Kao, Willard S Boyle and George E Smith, the “fathers of fibre optics and digital imaging” and winners of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics, laid the foundation for today’s networked society. Without their research on the physical properties of glass and on semiconductor integrated circuits, the trillion-dollar communications industry that has contributed to the last decades’ economic growth may never have come about.

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Another striking example: when Einstein developed his theory of special and general relativity, few would have imagined that such experimental work would have a practical application. But decades later, it did, in the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.

The system is based on an array of 24 satellites orbiting the earth, each carrying a precise atomic clock, which was originally developed for the purpose of testing the general theory of relativity. Built mainly for military navigation with investments of over $10 billion, GPS has now become a thriving industry.

More recently, the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna. This has opened up a new field in genomic precision medicine, with tools that can target genetic diseases directly. But this was not anticipated when researchers studying bacterial genomes came across strange, repetitive DNA sequences (the CRISPR), or others tried to figure out how to prevent yoghurt cultures from going bad. It was also not foremost in the minds of those who studied the structure of the enzyme Cas9 that acts as the gene ‘scissors’.

The creation of high-quality, reliable new knowledge is a necessary condition for useful innovations to emerge

Maria Leptin President, European Research Council

One of the most impressive cases is that of the COVID-19 vaccines. Ugur Sahin’s and Özlem Türeci’s rapid development of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the first fully-tested immunisation to be approved, relied not only on progress made in manufacturing vaccines, but also on substantial funding from the European Union and on regulators acting faster than normal. But this would not have been sufficient, had it not been for years of previous research into the mRNA technology, notably by Katalin Karikó. Researchers who had started mRNA trials for cancer vaccines long before the pandemic quickly realised that the same technology could be used for a COVID-19 vaccine.

The point is that we cannot know in advance which research results will end up being useful. But we do know that the creation of high-quality, reliable new knowledge is a necessary condition for useful innovations to emerge. These few examples illustrate that the process from a discovery to the commercialisation of a successful innovation is not straightforward. Innovation does not follow a linear process from a discovery to a start-up and then a successful product that brings growth and welfare to the world.

Discoveries being made today in labs and universities, and the work of the skilled and talented people who are trained in doing rigorous research, may well lead tomorrow or in a decade or two to new types of diagnostic tools for chronic diseases; or cheaper and greener energy technologies; or new insights into the interaction of animal and plant populations that will allow us to find ways of adapting to climate change.


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Frontier research continues to contribute to the long, complex and iterative process of modern innovation and the European Union invests in this through the European Research Council (ERC). We fund such research without expecting any immediate technological benefit. Nevertheless, in addition to fundamental discoveries, ERC-funded researchers have also created many start-ups and have transferred the results of their research to existing companies.

Their scientific publications, some of them important for the evolution of new scientific areas, are also among the most highly cited in patent applications. Over 44% of ERC-funded projects have generated research that was subsequently cited by patent applications, filed by firms and institutions all over the world.

These are encouraging facts. Modern economies cannot afford to invest exclusively in applied research. We need to raise the overall level of the world’s fundamental research and push the frontier of knowledge, if we want to be able to turn innovative ideas into products and services that will increase productivity and raise living standards across the globe.

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