sustainable prosperity, fundamental questions
© Sudheer Hegde

Dr Deirdre Black, Head of R&I at the Royal Society of Chemistry, argues for science to answer fundamental questions, create solutions to global challenges and contribute fully to sustainable prosperity

It goes without saying that for science to fulfil its potential to answer fundamental questions, create solutions to global challenges, and contribute fully to sustainable prosperity, it needs to have the right environment. However, government and funding bodies around the globe are at risk of creating less effective research systems, as a result of a shift away from investment in fundamental or basic research. I don’t wish to be misunderstood – applied and fundamental research are both essential parts of the wider research ecosystem that delivers new knowledge, processes and products.

Applied and challenge-based research have their own specific roles; applying our understanding of the world can also deliver a relatively predictable outcome, which is understandably appealing for investors. It’s little surprise then that the banking crash of 2008 saw an increased focus in challenge-based research – but it was at the cost of curiosity and shifting the balance away from the longer-term. The global emphasis on shorter-term, top-down research over fundamental is slowing the discoveries that can lead to new products that could create an even greater economic return. I am not alone in feeling that fundamental research is being overlooked. Earlier this year, we reached out to 750 leading scientists from all over the world to gauge opinion on the future of scientific research.

sustainable prosperity, fundamental questions
Dr Deirdre Black

In addition to highlighting the importance of interdisciplinary and international collaboration, as well as a sense that the scientific community could do more to participate in shaping the research agenda and take a broader leadership role across fields, the level of global disquiet among senior chemists over the lack of investment in discovery research was particularly striking. This was consistently highlighted – in both interviews we conducted and in survey responses we received – as a critical enabler for the advancement and application of science, particularly for long-term and transformational advances.

What are the questions that researchers want to answer?

Chemical sciences researchers are now looking for answers to an incredibly broad range of questions – from the inner workings of chemical elements to understanding the origins of life – to enhance our understanding of fundamental principles of science, without necessarily having any specific application in mind. While 82% of respondents to our survey agreed it is scientists’ duty to consider potential applications of their research, 94% stated that funding for discovery research was important for the advancement of the chemical sciences. In interviews and workshops, researchers spoke about how fundamental discovery research is where novel breakthroughs and transformative ideas come from.

These open up new techniques and ways of thinking, which sometimes lead to entirely new directions of research spanning multiple disciplines and pave the way for disruptive technologies of the future.

Indeed, fundamental discovery research is an essential part of global scientists’ efforts to understand and improve our lives, often laying the groundwork for future breakthroughs and applications, and has been directly responsible for game-changing inventions like MRI scanners, Kevlar and OLED displays found in TVs and portable electronics. However, driven by growing populations, escalating environmental concerns and the financial crisis of 2008, governments have prioritised global challenges and industrial innovation when funding scientific research and development.

Over the last decade, this has inevitably led to a shift towards funding for short-term, challenge-based research and away from fundamental discovery research. While this is to an extent understandable, it’s now time to tip the scales back or we risk losing the amazing benefits to humanity that come from this type of research.

What does technology have to do with it?

We are now in the so-called era of ‘super-measurement’ where we can see things, we simply weren’t able to before – with faster and more detailed microscopes and cameras allowing us to peer into the real-time molecular world. We are inventing technology solutions to global challenges, answering deep questions about life and our universe, all using frontier techniques to measure and create, smaller, faster and more precisely than ever before.

There is a glimmer of light. Prior to the announcement of a general election, UK Science Minister Chris Skidmore said he was “determined to see renewed focus given to basic research.” By the time you have read this, we will know the outcome of the General Election and it is my hope that this earlier commitment will be honoured by whoever is the science minister.

To use the name of one of our flagship events, Chemistry Means Business, and that is important to remember. But so does investment in all science and this is why redressing the balance is something that we have determinedly made the case for to both UK government and parliament. I will continue to passionately press for in the months to come.

If society is to take full advantage of everything science can offer, it is imperative that governments and funders worldwide sit up and listen to the concerns of the scientific community. Imbalance in any environment makes it unstable and, as we see in the natural world, that is ultimately unsustainable. Removing the imbalance in scientific funding does mean a leap into the unknown – but it’s that spirit of discovery that’s essential if we’re to provide the perfect environment for taking ever-greater steps forward in realising the full potential of the world around us.

You can download the Royal Society of Chemistry’s full Science Horizons report.


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Head of Research & Innovation
Royal Society of Chemistry
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