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The use of basic science: Benefits of basic science

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

Four classes of benefits can be distinguished, which are dealt with below in turn:

Contributions to Culture

Our lives are enriched, and our outlook changed, by (e.g.) knowledge of the heliocentric system, the genetic code, how the sun works, why the sky is blue, and the expansion of Universe. The point was elegantly, if arrogantly, made by Bob Wilson (first Director of Fermilab, a large particle physics/accelerator laboratory near Chicago) who, when asked by a Congressional Committee "What will your lab contribute to the defence of the US?", replied "Nothing, but it will make it worth defending".

Generally, however, scientists are surprisingly shy in advancing cultural arguments, and this is a very ancient phenomenon as shown by the following dialogue in Plato's Republic.

Socrates: Shall we set down astronomy among the subjects of study?
Glaucon: I think so, to know something about the seasons, the months and the years is of use for military purposes, as well as for agriculture and for navigation.
Socrates: It amuses me to see how afraid you are, lest the people should accuse you of recommending useless studies.

I consider that scientists should advance cultural arguments more boldly. In particular, public expenditure on particle physics can and should be justified largely on cultural grounds. The globalization of particle physics helps, and it is relatively easy to convince most people that mankind as a whole should continue to explore this frontier of knowledge, and can afford to do so. When justifying particle physics, it is tempting to invoke spin-offs, such as the World Wide Web which was invented at CERN (more examples are given below), but in my opinion they provide a secondary argument and the contribution to knowledge should be put first. In my experience the general public generally finds the cultural argument at least, if not more, convincing than spin-offs, and it is dangerous to base arguments on examples of spin-off which may not stand up to careful analysis.

The possibility of discoveries of enormous economic and practical importance

It is not hard to show that expenditure on basic science often leads to discoveries of enormous economic and practical importance, is highly profitable, and has easily paid for itself. Casimir, the renowned theoretical physicist, and one-time Research Director of Philips, has given a splendid list of examples (ref. 9):

"I have heard statements that the role of academic research in innovation is slight. It is about the most blatant piece of nonsense it has been my fortune to stumble upon.

Certainly, one might speculate idly whether transistors might have been discovered by people who had not been trained in and had not contributed to wave mechanics or the quantum theory of solids. It so happened that the inventors of transistors were versed in and contributed to the quantum theory of solids.

One might ask whether basic circuits in computers might have been found by people who wanted to build computers. As it happens, they were discovered in the thirties by physicists dealing with the counting of nuclear particles because they were interested in nuclear physics.

One might ask whether there would be nuclear power because people wanted new power sources or whether the urge to have new power would have led to the discovery of the nucleus. Perhaps - only it didn't happen that way.

One might ask whether an electronic industry could exist without the previous discovery of electrons by people like Thomson and H.A. Lorentz. Again it didn't happen that way.

One might ask even whether induction coils in motor cars might have been made by enterprises which wanted to make motor transport and whether then they would have stumbled on the laws of induction. But the laws of induction had been found by Faraday many decades before that.

Or whether, in an urge to provide better communication, one might have found electromagnetic waves. They weren't found that way. They were found by Hertz who emphasised the beauty of physics and who based his work on the theoretical considerations of Maxwell. I think there is hardly any example of twentieth century innovation which is not indebted in this way to basic scientific thought."

Casimir's examples have a number of features in common

  • the applications of new knowledge were highly profitable.
  • they were totally unforeseen when the underlying discoveries were made.
  • there was a long time-lag between the fundamental discoveries and their exploitation.
  • the discoverers in general did not get rich.

We will return to some of the consequences of these features later.

There have been some attempts to quantify the huge pay-offs from fundamental research. I will mention three:

A recent US National Science Foundation study found that 73% of the papers cited in industrial patents were published "public science", overwhelmingly basic research papers produced by top research university and government laboratories.

In the first paper I wrote on this subject (ref. 1), with the well-known economist John Kay, we estimated - on the basis of the conservative assumption that without electricity national income today would be at least 5% less than it is - that the benefit to the UK economy of accelerating the development of electricity by Faraday, Maxwell and others by one year would have been (in 1985) at least L20B, or some L40B today. This example was later turned into a sound bite by MrsThatcher who liked to say that the work of Faraday was worth more than the valuation of the British stock market.

A much cited study by Mansfield (ref. 10) in 1991 claimed to show that public investment in basic science generates a return of 28%. Mansfield's figure was derived from a sample of 75 major American firms in seven manufacturing industries (information processing, electrical equipment, chemicals, instruments, pharmaceuticals, metals and oil). He obtained information from company R&D executives concerning the proportion of the firm's new products and processes commercialised in 1975-85 that, according to them, could not have been developed (at least not without substantial delay) in the absence of academic research carried out within fifteen years of the first introduction of the innovation. Mansfield's work clearly demonstrates that there are large returns, but his analysis involves many assumptions and the actual figure should be treated with a large grain of salt. Indeed, given the very non-linear relation between research and final products, quantitative measurement is clearly essentially impossible.

It is sometimes said that the examples given above are all very well, but major benefits are unimaginable from such esoteric sciences as particle physics. In fact researches such as those cited by Casimir were regarded as equally esoteric at the time, and the danger of such a priori arguments is illustrated by the recent use of number theory in cryptology, although only 20 years ago it would have been regarded as one of the most "useless" branches of mathematics.

It is true that so far there have not been any direct applications of the discoveries of particle physics, but there have been some near misses. For example, if the muon (an unstable particle discovered in the 1940s) lived somewhat longer before decaying, muons could be used to catalyse nuclear fusion and generate huge amounts of energy. The discovery of long-lived charged particles which would catalyse fusion is not unimaginable. To give another possible example, certain "grand unified" theories of the known forces predict the existence of monopoles, which could be used to catalyse proton decay, thereby providing an essentially limitless supply of energy.

It is therefore not true that application of knowledge discovered in particle physics is unimaginable, even if it is unlikely. What is certainly the case, is that it will not be possible to exploit laws and facts of nature that remain undiscovered.

Spin-offs and stimulation of industry

By spin-offs, I mean devices and techniques developed to do basic research which turn out to have other uses. I give some examples from particle physics (many could equally well be credited to nuclear physics, from which particle physics developed):

Accelerators [*]

  • semiconductor industry
  • sterilisation - food, medical, sewage
  • radiation processing
  • non-destructive testing
  • cancer therapy
  • incineration of nuclear waste
  • power generation (energy amplifier)?
  • source of synchrotron radiation (biology, condensed matter physics...)
  • source of neutrons (biology, condensed matter physics...)

Particle detectors

  • Crystal Detectors [*]
    • medical imaging
    • security
    • non-destructive testing
    • research
  • Multiwire Proportional Chambers
    • container inspection
    • research
  • Semi-conductor Detectors
    • many applications at the development stage


  • World Wide Web [*]
  • Simulation programmes
  • Fault diagnosis
  • Control systems
  • Stimulation of parallel computing


  • Particle physics
  • multifilamentary wires/cables
  • nuclear magnetic resonance imaging
  • many others (cryogenics, vacuum, electrical engineering, geodesy...)

People sometimes seem to think that presenting this long list of spin-offs from particle physics is enough to justify expenditure on our subject. However, making such a justification is not easy. First it would be necessary to quantify the economic benefits. Second, one would need to analyse what would have been the result of spending the money that has been put into particle physics in other ways, i.e. work out the so-called opportunity cost. It is not surprising that the large expenditure at CERN produces spin-offs: on the contrary, it would be very surprising if it did not, and expenditure of similar sums on other high-tech activities would also produce spin-offs.

It is, however, certainly fair to argue that the value of the spin-offs should be taken into account when considering the cost of basic science, and it is probably the case that the special demands of particle physics, which requires very sophisticated purpose-built equipment, make it especially good at producing spin-offs. In fact, generally economists are increasingly recognising the importance of spin-offs, especially in the form of instruments developed to do fundamental research (4). Much of the equipment in a modern electronics factory began in university laboratories, and there are many examples of instrumentation passing through all or part of the chain from physics to chemistry, to biology, to clinical medicine, to health care.

Given that basic scientists are motivated by the desire to gain priority, and generally to publish and publicise their work, whereas applied scientists working in industry are motivated by the desire to protect, hide and patent, it may paradoxically be that there is more spin-off from basic than applied research. Even as abstract and esoteric a field as general relativity (Einstein's theory of gravity) has produced a spin-off. It is the navigational miracle known as the global positioning system, which can instantly and automatically tell you your position and altitude to within about ten metres anywhere on Earth. Over 160 manufacturers are developing GPS based systems world-wide for a new multi-billion dollar market. These systems work by comparing time signals received from different satellites. The clocks in the satellites are special atomic clocks originally developed, without any other motivation, to do research in general relativity, and in particular to check Einstein's prediction that clocks run differently in different gravitational fields.

"Big science" also plays an important role in stimulating industry by demanding products and/or performance that are at or beyond current capabilities. Two studies (11-13) have attempted to measure a quantity which the authors call the

"Economic utility" = increased turnover + cost savings

resulting from contracts awarded by CERN (additional sales to CERN are not included in the increased turnover). This was done by interviewing a very large sample of firms that had high-technology contracts with CERN in the period 1973-82 (in electronics, optics, computers, electrical equipment, vacuum, cryogenics, superconductivity, steel and welding, and precisions mechanics). The estimates were made by the industrial managers, and not by CERN, and in cases of doubt the lowest figure was taken.

The conclusion was that high-technology contracts placed by CERN have an economic utility (normalised to the value of the initial contracts) of 3.0, i.e. every ECU paid to an industrial firm generates 3 ECUs of utility (normalized to the total CERN budget, the economic utility was 1.2. It is notable that only 24% of the CERN-related increased sales were in the high energy and nuclear physics market, the rest involving unrelated fields such as solar energy, the electrical industry, railways, computers and telecommunications. Although no similar studies have been conducted in the last few years, interviews conducted with industrialists in the course of PhD work in applied economics confirm the strong utility resulting from CERN contracts perceived by industry.

It is interesting to note that a similar study (ref. 12, 14, 15) commissioned by the European Space Agency (ESA) found a similar multiplier factor (2.9 in the 1982 study; 3.2 in the 1988 study, or 1.6 normalized to the total budget), although nearly 80% of the ESA-related increased sales remain inside the space sector and the rest is mostly in aeronautics and defence.


Research in basic science provides an excellent training in problem-solving for those who go on to work in applied research or development in industry. Furthermore, this creates very valuable networks of links between researchers in different industries and in academia, which would not exist if all training took place in industry. The value of such networks is increasingly recognised by economists as a benefit of publicly funded basic science (ref. 4).

In the particular case of work in experimental particle physics, it is estimated that some 300 PhDs are granted world-wide each year based on work done at CERN (the total for the whole field is perhaps double this), and that at least half of these PhDs end up working in industry or commerce, where their experience in working on very high-tech projects in large multinational teams at CERN and other accelerator laboratories is greatly appreciated.

In addition, there is evidence that basic science (in the case of physics ref. 16), particularly astronomy and particle physics, with buzz words such as black holes and quarks, plays an important role in exciting the interest of young children in science and technology. This is extremely important, although the effect is hard to quantify.



  1. There are some 10,000 accelerators in the world today, of which only some 100 are used for their original purpose of research in nuclear or particle physics.
  2. Crystals developed for experiments at the LEP collider at CERN are now in use for medical imaging in hundreds of hospitals; in due course they will doubtless be replaced by crystals with superior properties currently being developed for the future LHC at CERN.
  3. A UK group has recently estimated that the Web, which was invented at CERN, already generates 5% of the sales of large companies, and that this will rise to 20% by the end of the decade.


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