Basic research = useless research?

This column represents reflections from a limited horizon — my horizon. I am a professor of inorganic chemistry at the Royal Institute of Technology and secretary general for Natural and Engineering Sciences at the Swedish Research Council. In the event that you don’t know what inorganic chemistry is, the subject was called mineral chemistry in Berzelius’ day and encompasses essentially the chemical elements, all 118 known ones and some hypothetical ones.

I received my PhD at Lund University in 1990 and have been active in research and teaching at the university since then, at times abroad. The circumstances for conducting independent and long-term research in a fundamental scientific subject such as inorganic chemistry have changed radically since 1990. For at least 15 years, my research projects have become increasingly applied. That’s where external financing is available. When I and some colleagues in a collaborative project recently discussed a joint future research strategy, one of my younger colleagues stated that we must ‘go where the money is’. And this probably is a more or less explicit strategy for most of us in the academic world today. In this context, we can also attest that the number of teachers/researchers active in the field of inorganic chemistry in Sweden today is only a fraction of the number in 1990.

IN 2010 INORGANIC CHEMISTRY at the Royal Institute of Technology was lumped together with some other departments of basic chemical subjects into the Department of Applied Physical Chemistry. We had all become far too few to be able to manage the administration required by a department, and we represented scientific environments that were far too small to offer a creative research environment for our younger colleagues. Was this the last department of inorganic chemistry in Sweden to go to the grave?

LAST SUMMER I TOOK PART in the Inorganic Days organised by the Swedish Chemistry Society and noted, to my initial surprise, that this conference attracted close to 200 participants. Where did all of them come from? After a while I realised that more research in inorganic chemistry is indeed being conducted in the country today than ever, but that most practitioners neither identify themselves nor the research they do as inorganic chemistry. You might think that it’s great that knowledge from a fundamental subject can be applied in a variety of other areas. But what happens in the long term if the scientific foundation disappears and the knowledge frontier in inorganic chemistry as a subject in its own right is not advanced? Does the funding of more applied aspects of inorganic chemistry allow us to also follow up important fundamental questions?

PREVIOUSLY INSTITUTIONS OF HIGHER EDUCATION stood as guarantors for ensuring that fundamental subjects could be developed scientifically and that knowledge could be conveyed through education at a higher level. Today, all of us who work at institutions of higher learning are fully dependent on external funding, and the term ‘faculty funding’ has essentially lost its meaning at many of these institutions. Because teaching also is underfunded in a subject such as chemistry, where laboratories, the necessary staffing levels for laboratory tutorials and chemicals constitute a significant cost, no chemistry teacher makes a living only by teaching. Given that all external calls for proposals are associated with cut-throat competition and moreover have a maximum time horizon of 4-5 years, you might wonder what kind of research is being fostered in Sweden today. Do we have the requisite conditions to conduct long-term scientific research that has only new knowledge as an objective?

IN 1992 I HAD THE benefit of doing post-doctorate research in the United States at Cornell University under the guidance of Roald Hoffmann. Cornell University and Roald’s research group were characterised by incredible scientific vigour and creativity, which left no colleague untouched. I again visited Cornell University in 2013 to participate in a symposium in honour of Roald in connection with his 75th birthday. I was again struck by the scientific impact a large American university has. Roald gave a touching speech about his upbringing and career and took the opportunity to thank all those who influenced him on his scientific journey. He closed with a thank you to Cornell University with the words: ‘Thank you, Cornell University, for always allowing me to pursue interesting, but not necessarily important, research over all the years.’

OBVIOUSLY, INTERESTING RESEARCH goes a long way; Roald is a Nobel laureate and one of the most highly cited scientist of our time, and his theoretical insights have shaped a whole generation of chemists’ views on chemical bonding. For example, many advances in organic synthesis, which led to new and literally life-altering medicines, would not have been possible without the fundamental insights that his research generated. Would it be possible to conduct this type of research in Sweden today?

IF WE SHIFT from basic chemistry to basic astronomy, astronomy is a more purely knowledge-oriented subject. An understanding of how galaxies or stars are constructed, for example, is difficult to translate into ’useful’ products. My friends in astronomy usually address such questions by referring to side effects, such as developments in optics and image processing that have pivotal and important consequences in other areas, such as medical diagnosis.

ONE CAN COMPARE the spin-off effects to the development of the World Wide Web at CERN or new materials that were developed in the Apollo programme. These are important, but the basic purpose of astronomical research is not primarily a matter of instrument development; if anything, that is the tool. Of course, knowledge gained from research in astronomy is absolutely crucial for long-term and strategic standpoints that affect people in the world, even if they all too often are challenged by non-scientific beliefs. Can we afford to not support pure knowledge-centred research? Can we afford to not want to know?

A FEW YEARS AGO THE ROYAL SWEDISH ACADEMY OF SCIENCES issued a publication about the value of basic research that cited a number of examples of achievements in our modern society that would not have been possible if it were not for the basic knowledge that already existed. Often this knowledge had been acquired several decades earlier, and at that time there was no clear ‘benefit’ to be gained from the new insights. Herein lies part of the educational challenge for all basic research: pointing to a possible benefit far in the future always comes off badly against the argument about a benefit today or promises to cure your illness now or to create a new commercial opportunity today. We see an increasingly clear focus on the societal challenges we can identify today; talk about challenge-driven research has become a mantra. Curiously enough, scientists at institutions of higher learning are generally regarded as separated from society and as if they had never heard of the challenges humanity faces.

WHEN A COLLEAGUE was asked if the Swedish Research Council ever supported any research with relevance to a very topical challenge for Sweden and Europe, a quick search showed that the council in recent years has spent about SEK 250 million on basic research within the area in question. The myth of university researchers living in ivory towers has been dead for a long time, but the rumour stubbornly lives on. Today all researchers are an integral part of society, and they educate a large part of society’s young people using current knowledge as a base. Could we perhaps attain better and more creative research results by supporting free but challenge-relevant research rather than by controlling it with challenge-driven initiatives locked into today’s level of knowledge?

MY DISCUSSION ABOVE relates, of course, to the perennial debate about the balance between applied (challenge-driven) research and basic (useless) research. Both types of research are needed! A good balance between the two is also important, and in Sweden today we seem to be lacking someone who is able to take responsibility for this balance. Universities no longer possess the wherewithal for assuming such responsibilities. My discussion above can, of course, be interpreted as a lament over bygone times, but I see it more as a well-founded concern that we (society) are no longer prepared to devote adequate resources to building a knowledge base for the future: the knowledge we convey to young people through education and the knowledge that must be the basis for decisions at many levels of our society. As our society becomes increasingly complex and technical, it also becomes increasingly important that all of us — and especially our leaders — have a current knowledge base to lean against when important decisions have to be made.

/Lars Kloo



2-2016-LarsKloo krönika2Lars Kloo is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the Royal Institute of Technology and
Secretary General in Natural and Engineering Sciences at the Swedish Research Council.