Term is over, so a summer of research begins

Once students have finished their exams, academics get down to the very important business of research

Not many people realise that GPS relies heavily on Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Photograph: AP Photo/File

Not many people realise that GPS relies heavily on Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Photograph: AP Photo/File

Thu, May 29, 2014, 01:00

‘You must be nearly finished for the year?” Every academic encounters this question/accusation each year from the month of May onwards. It never fails to surprise me, the widespread assumption that academics are free to enjoy the summer once teaching is over.

Certainly, it’s a favourite time of year for most lecturers. As the students finish their exams, only a few weeks of script corrections and exam-board meetings remain. Soon the college will quieten down and it will be time to concentrate on that other business – research.

The best feature of a career in academia is that it involves two very different activities. During the teaching semester, the focus is on lectures, tutorials, labs and assessments. It is only when the teaching term is over that staff can concentrate on quiet, uninterrupted research.

Academic research is not unimportant. Today, the great bulk of fundamental research in science – from astronomy to particle physics and from genetics to climate science – is carried out in third- level colleges. Whatever about the Bell Labs of the past, few modern corporations can afford to invest in blue-sky research that doesn’t offer a short-term dividend.

This lack of corporate investment is unfortunate, because the greatest breakthroughs in science and technology often arise from long-term, blue-sky research. Who could have predicted that research into the physics of semiconductors would lead to the emergence of the silicon transistor and the digital age that followed?

When the first laser was developed, it was thought to be an invention in search of a useful application – today, lasers lie at the heart of modern technology. More recently, the discovery of a complex phenomenon known as giant magneto- resistance led to a new revolution in the miniaturisation of digital devices.

My favourite example of a ubiquitous technology dependent upon abstruse science is the global positioning system (GPS).

Not many people realise GPS relies heavily on Einstein’s general theory of relativity. In order to synchronise a clock in a GPS satellite with a clock on the Earth’s surface, one must take account of the fact that the clocks lie in different gravitational fields (relativity predicts that time is affected by gravity). Without this relativistic correction, the GPS navigation system simply wouldn’t work.

 

Funding blues

In recent years, it has become more and more difficult to obtain funding for academic research. Research time is increasingly taken up with lengthy applications for research grants.

Such applications typically involve complex, time-consuming submissions from large teams of researchers to a national or international funding body. These documents take a great deal of time to co-ordinate and submit – and after all that, only a few proposals are successful.

In Ireland, one cannot expect too much investment in scientific research, given the scale of the recent financial crisis. However, many scientists here are concerned that, while some strategic funding is available for research in applied areas such as the pharmaceutical and biomedical sciences, there is almost no funding for basic research.

The problem with such a targeted approach is that only applied research that falls into certain compartmentalised areas gets funded.

Many scientists are primarily interested in the fundamentals of their subjects, rather than the applications, and interesting developments can occur in the most unexpected places.

For example, in my own research we recently discovered an unpublished manuscript by Einstein. The manuscript contains a previously unknown mathematical model of the universe by him.

Such research would never be subsidised by a modern funding agency because it straddles several fields, from cosmology (the study of the universe) to the history and philosophy of scientific ideas. Yet the finding is not trivial – there are several points of interest in Einstein’s model for today’s cosmologists.

Is funding for basic research important? I think so. Such research informs our teaching as well as our science. Another question is whether society can afford to miss the next breakthrough.

Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology. He is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a former fellow of the science, technology and society programme at Harvard University

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