October 11, 2018
Broadly speaking, scientific research takes two forms. One is applied research, which aims at practical results, such as more efficient and smaller batteries, or electricity generation from solar power. The other form is fundamental research, which is driven by curiosity and aims to expand human knowledge without any specific practical goal in mind. However, fundamental research can lead to later practical applications, often of an unexpected nature. In this piece, I argue that we ignore or downplay fundamental research at our peril. There is, unfortunately, some evidence that funding for it is struggling, at least in the UK.
I’ll begin with an example of how fundamental research can lead to unexpected, far-reaching results.
Allowing access to IT systems at any time, from anywhere, and from a variety of user devices, is recognised as a disruptive trend, labelled consumerisation. Disruptive trends open up new ways of doing business. But disruptive trends do not just spring up out of nowhere; they are the result of earlier ideas which have taken time to mature. But how far back should we look? Are there some truly original ideas which provide the source of the trend? I’d like to look at two ideas which could be considered the source of consumerisation: instant communication at a distance over a network and powerful but affordable devices at each end. Consider each in turn.
Communication at a distance has been a goal for millennia. Runners, smoke signals, chains of beacons and other techniques tried to reduce the time to communicate. Mechanical telegraph networks took a more systemic approach – old telegraph towers can still be found in various parts of Europe (one has given its name to a rather nice Châteauneuf-du-Pape). But none enabled rapid communication over long distances.
The seminal idea was the electric telegraph, dependent of course on discoveries in electricity generation. For the first time the essentials of e-business were in place: more or less instant communication to exchange information and execute transactions. Since then, progress has been increasingly rapid: telephones and data communications followed, finally developing into today’s high performance global digital networks and the Internet.
If electric telegraphy was driven by highly practical goals the other key idea was not. It arose out of a puzzling scientific discovery right at the beginning of the 20th century. Scientists were studying black body radiation, which is emitted from a black object or small hole in the wall of a furnace. Observations of the energy of the radiation as the temperature rose could not be explained by the laws of physics as understood at the time. What was the explanation?
In 1900, Max Planck advanced a revolutionary idea to explain the phenomenon: energy comes in little packets, which he called quanta. And so was born quantum theory. Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Dirac, Heisenberg and others found immediate uses in scientific theory and a comprehensive mathematical framework – quantum mechanics – was quickly developed.
Although the theory was advanced to answer profound scientific questions and not with any practical application in mind, its effects have been astonishing. It has been estimated that perhaps as much as 30% of the US economy is a result of the discovery. In particular it led to the invention of the transistor in 1947, leading to the micro-electronics industry, which created today’s ubiquitous microprocessors. More recent applications have been quantum computers and secure communications.
Without these developments, the computer and networking industries would be shadows of what they are today. There would be no Internet, no modern servers to host applications and no mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets for users to access them. Take a look at an old vacuum-tube computer and try putting that in your pocket!
The results of fundamental research may or may not lead to practical applications. If they do, it may be some time before it is understood what they may be. And even when it is clear that there are ways in which the discoveries can be used, a great deal of work may be required to turn the idea into reality. The time between the first statements of quantum theory and the transistor was nearly 50 years. It took some time after that, and a lot of engineering development, to come up with today’s micro-chips. Number theory in pure mathematics is another example. No one developing the theory expected it to have any practical use, but it has found an important role in cryptography.
Commercial organisations cannot be expected to provide the levels of funding required for fundamental research. Government support is necessary, both nationally and through international collaboration; CERN is an excellent example of the latter. However, those creating policy for funding do not all appear to grasp the nature of fundamental research. For example, asking applicants for funding to provide ‘impact statements’ and list ‘deliverables’, as are often required, shows a lack of understanding of how research works. It seems to imply that the results will be known before the research has been carried out. Established scientists with international reputations can navigate the process; new researchers are likely to run into difficulties and funding refusals. There may also be a damaging side effect. Researchers may refrain from publishing what could be seen as negative results, such as a lack of supporting evidence for a theory being tested. But negative results represent progress in science: they prompt revisions of theories and encourage new directions of enquiry.
It would help if there were more scientists at senior levels in government. However, there are many scientific institutions – the Royal Society in the UK for instance – able to provide expert advice, so it should not be beyond the wit of those at the top to understand what is needed. Depressingly, even a rudimentary understanding of science seems to be beyond some world leaders.
Notes and sources
 For Planck’s papers on quantum theory, see https://archive.org/details/PlancksOriginalPapersInQuantumPhysics/page/n0 ;
There are other sources. There is an enormous amount of literature, from popular to technical, about quantum theory.
 Two sources for the economic impact of quantum theory, see http://spartanideas.msu.edu/2014/12/22/quantum-gdp/ and https://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/eng/solutions/collaborative/quantum/qc_economic_impact.html
 Bardeen’s papers can be found at https://archives.library.illinois.edu/ead/ua/1110020/1110020f.htmlpbye