Expect the unexpected


Publicly funded research is increasingly expected to produce near-term returns to society. Fundamental physics has a strong track record of doing just that.

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It is 100 years since physicist Max von Laue discovered that X-rays are diffracted by a crystal. Soon after his demonstration, William Bragg and his son Lawrence derived a formula that connects the X-ray diffraction pattern to the crystal’s 3D atomic structure – the cornerstone of experiments at the ESRF’s beamlines. Einstein rated the discovery of X-ray diffraction in crystals one of the most beautiful in the history of physics.

These pioneers of X-ray crystallography did not set out to find a technique that would revolutionise materials science, drug design, palaeontology and numerous other disciplines. They were simply trying to better understand the properties of X-rays, which had been discovered serendipitously 15 years earlier.

“There seems to be a general fear these days that fundamental physics should be apologised for, but I think that we should be bold about it,” says Peter Knight, president of the UK’s Institute of Physics (IOP). “We need to protect our heritage and the best way to do so is to tell people what fundamental research has achieved. Sadly, once physics finds something useful, such as electronics, it tends to get rebranded.”

Applied or not applied?

Today the ESRF covers studies ranging from the nature of fundamental space–time symmetries to the development of catalytic converters in partnership with industry, but most physics experiments fall between such extremes. “I would say that 80% of what we do here is just motivated by scientific curiosity, but nobody says that because of the present financing structures,” remarks José Baruchel, emeritus scientist at the ESRF. “There was a time when you could get funding for pure fundamental topics: the last time I got a European grant for that was in the 1990s.”

Applied research is not a very useful term, says ESRF research director Harald Reichert. “We sometimes call it pre-competitive research, where you lay the ground for future technologies. That’s the ESRF’s strength.”

Starting this year, ESRF users are invited to indicate the societal theme in which their research fits, for example energy or health. This, says Reichert, takes into account that science policymakers have to justify to taxpayers why a facility such as the ESRF should be funded. “We are being challenged by the need to evaluate every aspect of our operation so we have to find a good balance between fundamental and applied research,” he says. “The emphasis has shifted more towards applications in recent years, which is fine because, in fact, doing industrial research is part of the ESRF’s convention, but we must stay open for fundamental research too.”

Directed research

Knight says that directed research is not necessarily a bad thing, and cites the development of the laser in the US as an example of where government and industry support boosted the pace of invention. But he worries that the EU framework programme, for instance, is “too aligned with the immediate” because managed programmes can often lead to something more mundane than envisaged. Knight offers graphene, the discovery of which earned two UK-based physicists the 2010 Nobel Prize for physics, as a counter example. “Graphene research was funded by Royal Society fellowships that give recipients complete freedom in their research, and look what came from that.”

While it is common practice these days for scientists to explain the applications of their research in the opening pages of a grant proposal, rarely do those applications materialise, at least in the near term. Fundamental science is a pre-requisite for applied science, says the ESRF’s Michael Krisch. “The discovery of superconductivity was driven by curiosity or perhaps even by accident, but then systematic fundamental research led to the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity and industrial applications followed.”

It is important that we reflect on this, says Reichert. “The danger is that with large funding packages being made available for specific goals, say better batteries, everyone does similar experiments and this actually constrains science because it reduces the scope for mavericks. Every so often a crazy proposal will come up with something important, then funding can be directed at it.”

Return to society

David Delpy, an applied physics graduate who is currently chief executive of the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which funds most of UK researchers’ beam time at the ESRF, admits that the demand for societal returns from science is now more explicit than it was
20 years ago. But he rejects claims that science is only now being asked to produce returns. “If you go back to Darwin’s voyage or Harrison’s chronometer, all were funded for a very specific purpose: to help Britain rule the waves and expand its influence. And then there are figures like Wedgwood who had commercial applications firmly in mind.”

Delpy says that the research funded by the EPSRC has consistently favoured “discovery-led” rather than “challenge-led” research over the past 15 years, with 60% of funds currently going to the former. “Funding fundamental science is implicit in EPSRC’s function and that’s why we have just committed more funds to the ESRF’s XMaS beamline,” he explains. “We’re not asking people to predict the output of their research, but to identify potential areas where it would be useful.”

Regardless of whether a physics research programme leads to a technology or product, says Knight, it produces highly numerate graduates who go on to work in industry or set up a company. “Fundamental physics – quantum theory, the Big Bang, astrophysics and synchrotrons too, although they perhaps have more of an image problem – these are the things that get people into science,” he told ESRFnews. “This is a huge tangible benefit of basic physics research, and one where there are gender issues because research seems to suggest that women are more likely to want to do something that benefits society.”

Quoting the late George Porter, a Nobel laureate in chemistry and former president of the Royal Society, Knight says that there is no such thing as non-applied research – only research that is yet to be applied. “When the ESRF does fundamental stuff, it will almost certainly be related to materials under certain circumstances, and bang! An application will come from it that was not expected.”

Synchrotrons themselves were a by-product of particle physics – the bluest of blue-skies research into nature’s fundamental constituents. In 1969, physicist and founding director of the US laboratory Fermilab, Robert Wilson, was asked by a congressional committee whether Fermilab’s new accelerator would have any value for national security. He replied: “it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”

Matthew Chalmers


Applications out of the blue
Physics is littered with examples of fundamental, curiosity-driven research that has had unforeseen benefits to society: nuclear magnetic resonance and medical scanners; giant-magnetoresistance and hard-drive capacities; quantum mechanics and the transistor; particle physics and the World Wide Web, to name but a few. Of course, much curiosity-driven physics research never leaves the library. The issue facing scientists and funding agencies today is whether breakthroughs can be streamlined by directing public money towards specific goals and applications.


 Focus on fundamental physics feature continues with:


This article originally appeared in ESRFnews, December 2012. 

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Top image: The discovery of X-ray crystal diffraction in 1912 opened a new view on material structure, as this diffraction pattern from a single silk fibre illustrates. Image credit: Journal of Applied Crystallography 30 390.