The Benefits of Basic Research

Basic research, also known as blue-skies research, is research driven by curiosity rather than economic or technological gain. It has been criticized as being a waste of money by some over the years, to the effect that basic research in the US and the UK is much lower today than it was a few decades ago, and further cuts are being considered, particularly in the UK (I couldn’t find any data on research spending in Australia). The argument was that even if basic research provides some benefits, we should let another country spend all its money because the research will be available to all. I completely disagree with this.

There are two reasons why basic research is a critical part of government spending. The first is cultural. The cultural value of basic research is enormous: in our modern age, we know exactly our place in the universe – the Earth orbits the sun, which is just one star in a spiral arm of a galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars, which in turn is just one of the billions of galaxies in the visible universe; We know about DNA, fundamental to all life on this planet; We know how the universe started, and how it will end. I’m sure I don’t need to convince you of the value of all this knowledge, but we need to think about science in a cultural light from time to time, lest we forget that science has worth in and of itself, quite apart from any technological or economic advancement it enables.

The economic benefits are most definitely there nonetheless. Almost every major technological innovation has been predicated on a piece of basic research, pursued for its own sake. From GPS and the internet in modern years (from General relativity and CERN, respectively) back through transistors (quantum mechanics of solids) all the way to the discovery of electricity and electromagnetic waves, basic research has underpinned every new technology for the past hundred years or more. Even fields as esoteric as Number Theory (it’s a field of pure maths that seemed about as far from any application as it is possible to be) have produced huge tangible benefits, in this case modern cryptography.

The other part of the economic argument is that many of the individuals involved in basic research later go on to work in industry, where their experience with high-tech basic research is invaluable. Studies in the US have shown that companies founded by ex-researchers grow more quickly and are more likely to successfully float than the average US company. As such, the benefits from basic research apply most to the country that pays for it, even though the results are all public. One can also look at the correlation between investment in basic research and economic success, though of course correlation does not necessarily imply causation. The clearest example here is the UK, which has been steadily cutting funding for basic research over the past 20 years, and whose economy has been in steady decline for over a decade.

The returns from basic research may not be immediate, but the benefits it provides are undeniable, and the fact that governments are using the economic situation as an excuse to cut funding to universities is an outrage. From both a cultural and an economic standpoint, basic research is one of the best investments a government can make.

P.S. As I said at the start, I don’t know what the state of funding is like in Australia. On the one hand, the University of Melbourne cut back on a lot of staff about a year ago; on the other hand the “Schools of Excellence” seem to be fairly well funded. If anyone has actual numbers about the funding of basic research in Australia please post them in the comments.

For people who want more specific instances of technological spinoffs and a good discussion about this issue in general, I found this article put out by CERN in 2008 to be very good: