Is curiosity-driven science just philanthropy or an economic necessity? Should funding for blue sky research wait for better times? Making a convincing argument for ‘no’ as the answer to this question was Prof André Geim – 2010 Nobel prize winner for physics and researcher into new wonderstuff, graphene.
Geim argued that Golden Ages follow major advances in technology. The general purpose technologies we all use today can be traced back to earlier advances in fundamental sciences, pre-dating the company that markets them. For example, the innovation underlying the iPod could be said to go further back than Apple. This time lag leaves us emotionally and economically detached from the basic science that underpins the technologies we rely on every day, the so-called ‘disruptive technologies’.
But when you look out for the next big thing, according to Geim the existing pool of disruptive technologies is nearly exhausted – graphene is really the only big thing in physics/materials at the moment. Over the last 10 years, research has stagnated.
Science today means 7 million researchers, 1 trillion dollars invested in fundamental research, about 1.5% of global GDP. In developed countries, about 0.5% of GDP is supposedly spent on fundamental research – but Geim contends there has been a shift in the definition of fundamental. It should mean the unknown unknowns – the research that is done for the same reason Mallory climbed Everest - ‘because it’s there’. By their nature, the results from blue sky research cannot be predicted but potential profits can be colossal. The discovery of the transistor generated trillions on trillions of dollars - but only decades after the fact.
So, what to do? According to Geim, heavily invest in curiosity driven science and particuarly in the right individuals. “The status quo is a slow economic suicide,” says Geim.