Driven by Basic Research

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Science  27 Apr 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6080, pp. 392
DOI: 10.1126/science.1221292

Are nations investing too little in basic research? In the context of the global debt crisis, several industrial countries have reduced their funding for this research. Even though the new understandings produced by this kind of science have long been the driving force behind an enormous number of key developments in society and the business world, many politicians seem to be entirely unaware of its importance beyond simply increasing the world's store of knowledge. Yet 400 years ago, a visionary political leader, the British statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon, emphasized that “Science discovery should be driven not just by the quest for intellectual enlightenment, but also for the relief of man's estate.”

Detailed studies have shown the importance of research investments for prosperity. In the 1950s and 1960s, Robert Solow, a Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics, demonstrated that technological advancement, rather than labor and capital, is the driving force behind economic growth in industrial countries, with the introduction of new technologies accounting for about 80% of the growth in gross domestic product (GDP). More recent studies confirm this finding, particularly for the most developed countries. Philippe Aghion of Harvard University has shown that R&D investments become increasingly essential as economies approach the world's technological frontier.* In a complementary study, Hans Gersbach from ETH Zurich showed that in leading industrial nations it is basic research that serves as the essential driver of innovation for economic growth. The scientists and problem-solvers trained in basic research laboratories frequently move from research institutions to industry, where they bring their knowledge and skills to bear on applied problems. But the new insights derived from basic research rarely lead to new products directly, more often having an indirect impact, with even striking discoveries leading to applications only after years or decades. Consider, for example, the theories of Albert Einstein, without which today's technologies such as lasers or satellite navigation systems would be unthinkable.


For business management it is risky, and given the long time periods required for practical benefit, not sufficiently profitable, for most companies to finance such curiosity-driven fundamental research. Instead, this basic scientific research must be adequately funded by governments, both to produce the skilled problem-solvers needed by the private sector and because the research results themselves deliver substantial benefits to the local economy. Analyses of patents show a strong national component of citation linkage, with inventors preferentially citing papers authored in their own country; thus, regional research investment brings local benefits. Ultimately, investments in fundamental research are paying off. It is a question of more than just conventional technologies and jobs. It is the results of this research that the world of tomorrow will build on.

Looking at these facts, it is clear that Europe and the United States (investing 2 and 2.8% of GDP, respectively) are gambling away opportunities if they do not improve their investments in R&D with an emphasis on basic research. Japan and Korea are already investing around 3.4% of GDP, and China and India are also gradually catching up. This allows these nations much more flexibility in the scope of their investments. Still more important, however, the global challenges that face us all will only be resolved with new knowledge yielded by basic research. We must explore new means of feeding nine billion people soon. We must find new ways to provide solutions to energy demand and climate change. We must discover how to maintain health in an ever-aging society. So the real question is not “Can we afford to invest in basic research?” It is “How can we afford not to?” Because, as Francis Bacon also wrote, “He that will not apply new remedies must accept new evils; for time is the greatest innovator.”

  • * P. Aghion, A Primer on Innovation and Growth (Bruegel Policy Brief, 2006).

  • H. Gersbach, in The New Economics of Technology Policy, Dominique Foray, Ed. (Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, UK, 2009).

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