Why Fundamental Research Matters

Government should fund science even if there is no immediately obvious benefit.

When the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) was founded in 1954, nobody could have anticipated that a body dedicated to fundamental research into particle physics would inadvertently create a world-changing communications medium.  A project called ENQUIRE was initiated at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 and Robert Cailliau in 1990, aiming to make information easier to share among researchers and easier to find using a simple technology called Hypertext that allowed one document to be “linked” to another so that a user could get to it with a click of the mouse.  In a very short time, this collection of documents and the technology used to share them became accessible worldwide through the internet, and the World Wide Web was born.  It was the World Wide Web that made the internet user-friendly enough that it could become accessible to the public both as a means of accessing information and disseminating it.

The genesis of the web is a classic example of how innovation works.  The process of setting out to solve the most complex problems known to man very often has unexpected side benefits.  The complexity and amount of information being handled at CERN required a convenient and efficient means of sharing and accessing it, enough technical expertise was on hand to solve the problem, and the resulting solution produced a spin-off benefit the impact of which is incalculable.  The original intent was nuclear research, but just one incidental outcome was a new communications medium that has become the engine of massive social, economic, technological, and even political change.

This concept of uncertain outcomes from fundamental research is sometimes lost on policymakers who insist on only funding projects that are likely to produce more immediate benefits.  However fundamental research into such esoteric and complex areas as particle physics, while not being immediately obvious in their economic impact, have by far the biggest potential.

The multi-billion euro European Research Council (ERC) finances exploratory basic research. Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, ERC president, recently reiterated a criticism made two years ago that Ireland is too focussed on research aimed at immediate job creation and as a result is missing out on potential funding.  He is also quoted as saying that basic science must be left to flourish before people move to exploit it to create jobs.

For all of its claims to be a center of technology and innovation, Ireland is conspicuous by its absence from some important international scientific research institutes.  It is not a member of CERN, even though countries with a comparable population like Bulgaria and Slovakia are, while Turkey, Pakistan, Brazil and Ukraine have declared an intent to join.  The European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, focuses on research into uses of X-ray radiation which has many applications.  This world-leading facility is supported by twenty countries, but Ireland is not one of them.

To give credit where due, Ireland does contribute to international scientific research through its membership of organizations such as the European Space Agency and EURATOM.  However there is room for improvement in the country’s contribution to human progress.

The Irish government could do well to heed Professor Bourguignon’s warning.  There is more to funding science than earning political brownie points while announcing the creation of research jobs.  Science deserves to be funded because it spurs innovation and creates opportunities for entrepreneurs further down the line.  Above all, expanding the invaluable store of human knowledge is the right thing to do.

Published on Forásach, July 2014