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The tracking chambers of the ALICE muon spectrometer

The use of basic science

by C.H. Llewellyn Smith,
former Director-General of CERN

Over 200 years ago, at the beginning of 1782, the German physicist and philosopher Christof Lichtenberg wrote in his diary:

"To invent an infallible remedy against toothache, which would take it away in a moment, might be as valuable and more than to discover a new planet... but I do not know how to start the diary of this year with a more important topic than the news of the new planet".

He was referring to the planet Uranus, discovered in 1781. The question Lichtenberg implicitly raised, of the relative importance of looking for technical solutions to specific problems, and of searching for new fundamental knowledge, is even more pertinent today than it was 200 years ago.

In this paper I shall argue that the search for fundamental knowledge, motivated by curiosity, is as useful as the search for solutions to specific problems. The reasons we have practical computers now, and did not have them 100 years ago, is not that meanwhile we have discovered the need for computers. It is because of discoveries in fundamental physics which underwrite modern electronics, developments in mathematical logic, and the need of nuclear physicists in the 1930s to develop ways of counting particles.

I shall cite many examples that demonstrate the practical and economic importance of fundamental research. But if fundamental, curiosity-driven, research is economically important, why should it be supported from public, rather than private, funds? The reason is that there are kinds of science that yield benefits that are general, rather than specific to individual products, and hence generate economic returns which cannot be captured by any single company or entrepreneur. Most pure research is consequently funded by people or organizations who have no commercial interest in the results and the continuation of this kind of funding is essential for further advance.

It would certainly be naive, even wrong, to equate the pure uniquely with the general, and the applied with the specific, but it is far more likely that a substantial proportion of the benefits of applied research will accrue to those who undertake it. Furthermore, once definite economic returns can clearly be anticipated, the private sector, motivated by profit, is generally better placed to undertake the necessary research and development. It follows that a policy of diverting public support from pure to applied scientific research would also divert funds from investment which only the public sector can make, to areas where the private sector is generally likely to do better.

Section 2 of this paper contains some general remarks on the difference between basic and applied science. Section 3 then describes the benefits of basic science. In Section 4, the above well-known argument that governments have a special responsibility to support basic science as a "public good" is elaborated. This argument, which is relatively easy to make, leads to two much harder questions, which are dealt with in Sections 5 and 6 respectively:

If companies can leave funding of basic science to governments, why can some governments not opt out – leaving it to others – as it is sometimes argued Japan has done very successfully?

How should governments choose what to support, and at what level?


Note: This paper, which makes no great claim to originality, is based on a colloquium given at CERN on 12 June 1997, which was developed from earlier talks and articles (ref. 1-3) given or written during the previous twelve years. Over this period I assimilated a number of arguments and quotations from a variety of sources, many of which I have now forgotten. I apologise to those whose contributions to the subject matter of this paper are not properly acknowledged. For references to the expert literature on science funding see (ref. 4). As Director-General of CERN, I was involved in discussions of science funding with representatives of governments on average about once a week. These discussions naturally focused on particle physics, which is therefore singled out for special comment at a number of places in this paper.

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