Sun must shine on blue-sky research
Nobel laureate Serge Haroche wants more long-term support for budding researchers
Young researchers in Europe need support to carry out ambitious projects, and the relatively short-term nature of politics should not undermine the long-term funding needs of science and the kinds of problems it can help to solve.
That’s according to physicist and Nobel laureate Prof Serge Haroche who wants to see more investment at European and national levels into “curiosity-driven” research. He was one of several scientific and mathematical heavy hitters who signed an open letter published last month in various media across Europe, including The Irish Times.
Lamenting that the EU has not become the “world’s most dynamic knowledge-based economy”, the letter warns against reducing the funding for excellent, fundamental research. “It is essential that we support, and even more importantly, inspire in a pan-European way the extraordinary wealth of research and innovation potential that exists all over Europe,” it states. “We are convinced that the younger generation of researchers will also make its voice heard – and governments should listen to what they have to say.”
More than 40 Nobel laureates and six awardees of the Fields medal – the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics – put their names to the letter.
Meanwhile, an online petition that supports the letter and is co-ordinated by the Initiative for Science in Europe has already been signed by about 150,000 people from around the world. They include about 1,400 signatories based in Ireland. (See the website at: iti.ms/TBp8ez)
Against this backdrop, Prof Haroche argues that Europe needs to see the value of fundamental science and to help young people to put their research careers on a decent footing. At present, the European Research Council (ERC) provides funding for blue-sky research – theoretical research that may not yield a result – and Haroche currently gets an ERC grant. But he wants to see more long-term support for researchers who are starting out.
“It is important to fund young researchers who want to do curiosity-driven research,” says Haroche, who is administrator and professor of quantum physics at the Collège de France and carries out his research at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.
“Curiosity-driven research is a part of life. Some people are curious. They want to learn more about nature and society should help that. It’s like art: you can learn more and bring more beauty.”
He also makes a more utilitarian argument: that curiosity-driven research can lead to practical applications down the road.
“Most technological advances in our life now come from serendipitous discoveries,” he says, noting how early forays into space have yielded technologies we use on Earth today, such as GPS. “That is a contraction of rocket technology and computer technology and atomic clock technology,” he explains.
Those early missions also inspired Prof Haroche as a schoolboy to become interested in the links between science and nature, and he used what he was learning in maths to work out how rockets and satellites could get into space.
“It is hard to rationalise or explain why you love what you love,” he says. “But I have always been interested in science and maths, and in high school I was struck that you could use maths to understand nature and science.”
That curiosity led him to later work with lasers, which he used to research how light can manipulate atoms. That, in turn, paved the way for his groundbreaking experiments to observe how photons interact with atoms in supercooled cavities.
“We thought it would be nice to have atoms interact in such a gentle way with the photons that they would just take an imprint of the photons, so that many atoms could ‘see’ the same photon and it would give rise to a lot of interesting effects,” recalls Haroche. “Myself and my colleagues had this project for a very long time and we were finally able to observe it.”
His research resulted in him sharing the 2012 Nobel Prize for physics with Prof David Wineland “for groundbreaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems”.
The potential applications of being able to measure light or atoms with such precision are open, according to Haroche, but they could include improving the GPS system, more sensitive warning systems for earthquakes and maybe even more secure online communications.
Yet today a researcher might find it a challenge to secure funding for the kind of fundamental science that has built to this point, notes Haroche.
“When I was starting out and looking for funding, I never had to pretend that my research was going to be applied for something. It was blue-sky research, and this is very important for young scientists.”
In particular, researchers who are starting out and who have an ambitious goal need long-lasting funding, according to Prof Haroche. “The problems that research has to solve – like how we generate and use energy and how we can understand and address climate change – they need long-term projects,” he says.
“But the politicians and governments who give the money are elected on short-term programmes. This is a contradiction and I think it is a big challenge that Europe faces.”
He is also concerned that national funding systems will rely too much on European agencies such as the ERC to take care of the curiosity-driven research and will decrease their own recurrent funding for blue-sky science accordingly. “That would not be very helpful,” he says.
So what can be done?
One move Prof Haroche would like to see would be extended “junior” grants to support young researchers in Europe with big ideas for at least a decade so they can achieve long-term goals: “The system has to trust the bright people,” he says.