The issue, if you are primarily concerned with economic impact, is therefore how best to support technological progress. And here again there is a high level of consensus.
Firstly, it is accepted that technological progress requires both basic or curiosity-driven research and applied research. Secondly, it is accepted that governments bear the central responsibility to fund basic research. That is, because the applications of such research cannot be foreseen, and possibly come with a long time-lag between fundamental discoveries and their translation into practical returns.
Public research plays a key role in innovation systems by providing new knowledge and pushing the knowledge frontier. Universities and public research institutions often undertake longer-term, higher-risk research and complement the activities of the private sector. So why then do we in the basic research community feel that we are under constant pressure to justify our activities and our budgets? I believe that there are two related reasons. The first one is that, even if the importance of basic research for technological progress is accepted, the way science relates to it and to economic growth is inherently complex and still poorly understood.
The misunderstanding may arise from the many successes of the past. As people have seen a sustained stream of findings, technologies and innovations appear decade after decade, some people have come to think of it as an easy and, in the end, predictable process. But of course we know that science does not and cannot work that way. First of all, let me insist that we do care about the scientific impact, the ways disciplines transform themselves because of new results, new concepts, new models We must always recall that new domains of science appear all the time, and new combinations of science become fruitful and require a new attitude and a new spirit from scientists.
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Coming back to technologies, we must stress that they harness natural phenomena. These phenomena exist in the world regardless of our desires. It was not decided one day that better means of communication were needed and then somebody discovered electromagnetic waves.
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The basic circuits used in computers were not found by people who wanted to build computers. They were discovered in the s by physicists dealing with the counting of nuclear particles, their topic of interest. Many of the commercially successful inventions that have driven economic growth in the last decades come from research conducted with no commercial purpose. I am more interested in the elegance of a problem. Is it a good problem? An interesting problem? Now, my second reason is that we scientists need to do a better job of explaining how science works.
If we behave like this, then we ourselves are contributing to the impression that science is easy and predictable, when we all know it is hard work and we often fail! We need to be clear that basic research is essentially trying to understand how things work. This can in some circumstances lead to identify new phenomena, i.
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There is indeed no linear process by which scientists make discoveries, then harnessed through a complex chain of actions. We therefore need to contest the idea that asking researchers to address impact ex ante as only possible basis for having their research funded can do no harm. Forcing researchers towards expected, intended and immediate impact risks missing out on truly transformational discoveries.
It can also lead to gaps in scientific knowledge in areas, which are not of societal interest at one point in time, but might be so later, and even become of paramount importance. Moreover, requiring scientists to set out what the impact of their project will be beforehand may decrease trust in science if these promises are not delivered. Further, the channels through which basic research feeds into the economy are many and diverse.
It is not just about the occasional breakthroughs. Fundamentally, basic research increases the stock of useful knowledge, both codified e. It plays a decisive role in training skilled graduates and researchers in solving complex problems, produces new scientific instruments and methodologies, creates international peer networks through which the latest knowledge circulates efficiently, and can even raise new questions about societal values and choices. A strong science base allows countries to be at the forefront of knowledge creation because, without this knowledge, individuals, firms or countries lack the capacity to identify and absorb potentially exploitable knowledge created elsewhere.
Of course we could say much more on the interactions between basic research, technological progress and economic growth. We must explain to them why it is legitimate to refuse to get into the game of trying to demonstrate the unknowable a priori, and to limit the indispensable breadth needed to consider science from many angles. In a nutshell, the best bets are made when scientists are pushed to their boundaries when submitting research proposals, and the most competent evaluators are confronted with these challenging projects.
You may have to press them to take on risk, as our community is actually spontaneously conservative and needs to be put outside of its comfort zone to accept some bets. This is precisely what the European Research Council is about, and I hope it plays its part in this process of educating policy-makers. Print this document. They may be Higher Education Institutions, Charities or other organisations that undertake research and research management activities receiving support from NIHR.
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