Neglect of basic research 'damaging'
Sir, – As an Irish scientist, who left Ireland in 1963 and has worked in Europe and the US for most of my life, I read Dr John Kelly’s article (Opinion, October 2nd) with interest. I agree strongly with Dr Kelly that “academic research must contribute to society”. However, the article’s implication that basic science has little utilitarian value, and the sharp distinction drawn between basic science and engineering, are both incorrect and unhelpful. In my view, neglect of basic research would be damaging to the long-term future of Ireland as a knowledge economy.
Take astronomical research, a basic discipline that is regarded by some as being solely for the pure pursuit of knowledge. That is far from the case. Astronomy does indeed address intriguing fundamental questions that are of profound interest. However, the need to observe the faintest objects in the universe has also driven the development of several cutting-edge technologies. These include sensitive antennas, CCDs in cameras, low-noise amplifiers, supercomputers, wireless Internet, the most accurate clocks, GPS navigation, medical X-ray and ultrasound imaging.
The scientific discoveries and technological advances of modern astronomy depend on close collaboration between creative scientists and innovative engineers. The science of radio astronomy was actually “invented” by electrical engineers. The LOFAR radio telescope centred in the Netherlands is an example of a multidisciplinary ICT facility that combines basic and applied research. It looks upwards to do astronomy and looks downwards to monitor the effect of gas mining on the earth beneath the Netherlands.
Astronomy is a unique tool for education at all levels. The universe excites children, has inspired countless teenagers to choose a career in science and engineering and provides a useful training for applied scientists and engineers. For several years I was director of Leiden Observatory, one of the largest university astronomy departments in Europe. We currently host more than 60 PhD students many of who are involved in projects with large international facilities. There is a huge demand from industry for our astronomy graduates and two-thirds of them take up non-astronomical positions throughout the Netherlands and abroad.
Another illustration of the societal benefit of astronomy is the international recognition that it has received as a tool for human and technological development, most recently both by vice-president Xi Jinping of China and by the European Parliament.
The International Astronomical Union has embarked on an ambitious programme to use astronomy for global development. This effort, with which I am closely associated, is strongly supported financially by the South African government. South Africa sees astronomy as an important catalyst for the development of Africa, has built large optical and radio telescopes and has fought hard and successfully to site the next-generation global radio telescope (SKA) in Africa. The bottom line is that stimulating basic science can be hugely beneficial for economic growth.
What are the lessons for Ireland? First, prioritisation of research funding is essential and societal impact must be an important part of such an assessment. Second, there is far more to societal impact than the narrow issue of short-term commercialisation. Research prioritisation should include an assessment of the long-term benefit to building national research capacity, including the impact on education and public scientific literacy. Third, measures should be considered that would encourage and strengthen the link of Irish basic research with industry and education, and stimulate collaboration of scientists with engineers and teachers.
It is impossible to predict what the key areas of applied research will be in the coming decades. However, a strong and vibrant presence in basic research is essential to guarantee the future of Ireland’s knowledge economy. – Yours, etc,