Fundamental research can yield unforeseen benefits of great value for society, but often this happens only many years after the initial breakthroughs have been made. Can society find a way to pay back this debt?
In a Commentary in this month’s issue of Nature Physics (3, 824-825; 2007), Leon N. Cooper of Brown University, writes that “Money is required to do science and as systems become more complex, more people, equipment, and therefore more money is required for each new result. Naturally, people hark back with sentimentality to the good old days when results could be obtained on a tabletop. In fact, some results are still obtained on tabletops, but the tables are getting larger and the tops more expensive. More and more results come from huge collaborations demanding enormous resources. And this brings us inevitably to the questions of who pays, how and why.”
After outlining some of the problems in supporting the fundamental research necessary for science to progress, Professor Cooper suggests three measures to improve the current system, involving investment, distribution, and a clear distinction between fundamental and applied research. Referring to the breakthroughs in superconductivity research, he writes: “No single method can solve all of our problems, but the measures outlined above would substantially improve our present system. I would hope that they would make it easier for some current gifted program officer to reach as wise a decision as was made in the Army Ordnance Office fifty years ago.”