Obtaining financial support for scientific research is generally more difficult for work that is fundamental in nature rather than applied. In the October issue of Nature Chemistry, Bruce C. Gibb of the University of New Orleans contemplates how topics such as complexity might get their share — and why it is vital that they do (Nat. Chem. 1, 513-514; 2009). As he puts it: “The deeper and more fundamental the work, the further the bubbles of ideas and discoveries have to rise to the surface of contemporary life, and the more things become unpredictable. For example, was the Swedish physiologist Ulf Svante von Euler-Chelpin thinking about the mechanism of action of Aspirin when he was isolating compounds (prostaglandins) from sheep sperm? I think it’s safe to say that he wasn’t. Indeed, most scientists would probably agree that it doesn’t necessarily take very long for life to throw up a completely unexpected use for the knowledge created by a fundamental discovery.”
The “ideal” relationship between fundamental and applied research is explored in the article – but however one may look at it, the balance of funding is skewed in favour of applied work. Complexity is one example of fundamental chemical research, and there are welcome signs that funding agencies are beginning to recognize the importance of this discipline. Fundamental research may be harder to justify in a 30-second soundbite, but it is the “feeder system” for eventual economic benefits and societal advances.