Rolf Tarrach is President of the European University Association based in Brussels and was the Rector of the University of Luxembourg from 2005 to 2014. He is member of IDEA’s Scientific Council.
These are some complementary thoughts to IDEA’s first input, “Le Luxembourg au milieu du gué”, on the role of R&D and innovation in the future economic and societal development of our country. They are thoughts that are only broached, not quantitative analyses that are worked out.
This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics went to the theoretical work and experimental discovery of gravitational waves, predicted precisely one hundred years earlier by Albert Einstein while working as a professor in Berlin in the middle of the first nasty war of the past century. This prediction was an immediate consequence of his General Theory of Relativity, a solitary ten-year effort on unifying Newton’s gravity, which explains why we weigh, and his own Special Relativity Theory, contrived in the evenings after his work in Bern’s patent office. Both Einstein’s seminal relativity contributions, the first one financed by himself (or rather by his wife taking care of household and kids) and the second one by taxpayers, met with lots of skepticism and were considered utterly useless and void of any applicability. Or so it was thought for many years.
Enter GPS, a localization tool on which so much hinges in our modern life. It requires four satellites carrying very precise atomic clocks. However, the flow of time depends, according to Einstein’s Special Relativity, on the speed of the clock, and according to Einstein’s General Theory, on the gravitational field at the satellite’s position. If you are a pre-Einstein GPS engineer, the precision of localization will be a lousy few score meters, if you use both Relativity corrections of the flow of time of the atomic clocks, the precision is an astonishing few score centimeters, say a factor 100 better. The technological and economic consequences of this improvement based on utterly “useless” blue-sky research are huge.
The history of fundamental research, the one that often eventually leads to technological, economic and even societal breakthroughs, is full of examples like this one. Let us only mention here the prediction and discovery of electromagnetic waves by Maxwell and Hertz in the 19th century, Crick’s and Watson’s discovery of the double helix and all what come from our understanding of DNA and our genome half way through the 20th century and the World Wide Web based on a protocol developed at CERN, the foremost European Center of fundamental physics, by Berners-Lee. This last breakthrough originated from the need of the huge international collaborations working there to be able to access each other’s documents without knowing the program in which they were written nor the server in which they were stored. Such revolutionary innovations are usually the product of fundamental research, not of applied research. Indeed some very thorough studies performed in the UK seem to show that the economic benefit of fundamental research is larger than the one of applied research. So, where are then the problems of fundamental research? Why so much talking about whether it should be done?
The previous examples make them quite clear: serendipity, unpredictability, lack of appropriability, long hibernation times, arcaneness and unaccountability. It is clear from this list that fundamental research will hardly be performed today by traditional companies, but it is society, or rather taxpayers, that will have to finance it, or, and this is a recent development, by the contemporary publicly highly valued tech companies. Let us briefly go through the list.
Serendipity: often what one finds is not what one was looking for, or supposed to find. This makes planning difficult.
Unpredictability: the level of risk is such that the most frequent outcome is nothing of real interest. This makes politicians and stake or shareholders feel uneasy.
Appropriability: the society or company that funded the research will often not be the one that reaps it benefit. This is the mirror image of moral hazard.
Hibernation times: many results do lead to breakthroughs many years after their publication. Recognition comes very late, if ever.
Arcaneness: Understanding what it is about and thus explaining it to the public is an exacting challenge. This makes the support of citizens uncertain and hesitant.
Unaccountability: in spite of all efforts made by economists there is no scientifically serious methodology to quantify the long-term value added of fundamental research and compare it to its cost, so that the return on investment is fundamentally unknown. Nobody is happy with this.
So, the obvious conclusion seems to be, forget it! However, a world without fundamental research would be a world without knowledge, even worse, without understanding, where R&D and innovation could not thrive, a boring, dull place where humans would miss using their most precious parts of their brain, and certainly a place of much lower quality of life. A place full of fear, in Madame Sklodowska-Curie’s words, “there is nothing to be feared, it is all to be understood“. Fundamental research is a common good, and as such suffers from the tragedy of the commons. Certainly, the large, advanced countries in our rich world will continue being active in it, because they know well what they get out of it, in spite of weird presidents, strange beliefs and flabbergasting ideologies and the fashion of “alternative” or rather fake truths. But what should less developed, poorer or smaller countries do? What is the benefit they get from funding fundamental research with the public purse? Can they justify it? Does it make economic and societal sense?
I will limit myself here to Luxembourg’s case, which is in itself, because of its complexity, not small beer.
The only straightforward reason for not doing fundamental research in Luxembourg would be that the smallness of the country justifies riding or rather piggybacking on others, which then would allow to redirect the saved associated financial resources to applied research, development and innovation, which benefits society in a much more obvious and immediate way. An arguably more subtle question would be if the size of the country actually allows doing fundamental research of enough quality, but today international collaborations are almost a necessary condition for quality in research and Luxembourg is and has always been a country that excels in them, so this disposes of that issue.
Let me now go through what we win by being strong in fundamental research: attracting bright young people, feeding necessary and relevant content into R&D and innovation, increasing the level of scientific culture thus adding to the intellectual life of the country, furthering curiosity, polishing our international image, serving Europe and even the world at large and finally, being proud of our country. Let us briefly go through this list.
- Human resources or rather young human beings that are creative, smart and curious, this is one of the most important factor determining the wealth and well-being of a country. Fundamental research is one of the most efficient attractors for these people.
- Egypt is worried about a dam being constructed in Ethiopia, on the Blue Nile, because it will greatly determine the agriculture’s productivity on the Nile’s delta and much more. Equally, without the understanding that comes from fundamental research R&D activities and technological developments might dry out and be built on quick sand. This is also why the top technological universities worldwide like Caltech, MIT, ETHZ, EFPL, TUM are active in fundamental research.
- Not understanding a clue of modern biology and biomedicine, neurology and artificial intelligence, space science and physics, information and computer sciences, anthropology and evolution will not allow us to have the country we need, it would be lopsided and somewhat ignorant place, and not be able to cope with the many problems we face and will face in the future.
- Innovation is based on curiosity, creativity, understanding and acceptance of risk. These are, cut and paste, the features of fundamental research, just more upstream.
- In a very recent and well written article in The Guardian on Luxembourg and space resources Luxembourg’s image and reputation were somewhat tarnished. Unfortunately, this is not exceptional. Fundamental research, which benefits the whole world, would help us to improve our image in a sensible way.
- Europe’s future, which can only be based on a knowledge society, will be determined by the quality of its Higher Education and Research activities, and fundamental research still depends crucially on Europe and the United States. Luxembourg would be even more European by contributing to it instead of leaving it to others.
- Most importantly, fundamental research and its national and international recognition by both society and Nobel, Abel, Japan, Kavli or Wolf prizes or Fields medal juries would add substantially to the sterling reasons to be proud of our country.
Nothing has been said about Social Sciences, engineering and Arts & Humanities. Research in the former two is of applied character almost by definition of the discipline, while Arts & Humanities are not further mentioned for two reasons: they arguably contribute only marginally to economic development and, more importantly, their role for society is a subject of passionate debates everywhere and too complex an issue to be included here. This is from the perspective of funding not a serious omission, as their cost is rather irrelevant as compared to the cost of fundamental research in the natural Sciences.
Before concentrating in more detail on Luxembourg, let me recall here a few simple facts about fundamental research, R&D and innovation. Research costs money. Innovation produces financial benefit. Exactly as a scientific article which is not read and cited is of limited value, so is a patent which is not licensed and an innovation which does not lead to benefits. The path from fundamental research, through applied research, development, prototypes and finally innovation is traditionally understood as linear, but the feedbacks are so strong that it is nowadays often presented as circular, triangular or distributed. Still, there is mostly a causal order. Fundamental research is of two types, blue-sky or targeted. The first one is free, only curiosity driven, pushing our frontiers of knowledge without regard of it use or usefulness. The second one is also curiosity driven, but is the first step in an endeavor that eventually targets a long-term goal of clear economic or societal interest.
Luxembourg is a small country. This implies that it has to be more selective than the larger ones, if it wants to maintain high standards of quality, which I am sure we want. It is so small that it should keep blue-sky research to a minimum and go for targeted fundamental research. Probably no more than two, three or four areas can be developed with sufficient resources to guarantee highest quality. For reasons of tradition, opportunity, governmental policy, existence of entrepreneurial R&D and existence of human resources the following two seem obvious:
- Materials, as both at the University and at LIST excellent research groups exist.
- Informatics and Computer Sciences strongly pulled at in its applications by SnT, one of the University’s interdisciplinary centers.
A third one could be, in fact is, Biomedicine, somewhat hindered by the absence of an health industry, whose further development would have major societal and budgeting consequences, because of its link with whatever has to do with medicine and health. This is where a serious, well-thought, financially analyzed 10 to 15 year R&D strategy and vision, which if it exists is unknown, would help immensely in making the right decisions at the right time. But this depends on whether the society and the government consider R&D part of their backbone, a non-renounceable condition for a bright future of the country, a priority, or alternatively something which is done because the other do it, something which is done in times of surpluses, something contingent.
In this Luxembourg of my dreams more research activities could be critically considered, either related to daring but admirable governmental initiatives like space mining, to give it a more solid scientific and technical foundation, or related to future European Flagship programs or Moonshot projects, like the 1 bn € Flagship in quantum technologies, which is in the pipeline and starting. With our per capita GDP, or even GNP, this searching for revolutionary breakthroughs on the frontiers of knowledge to which we could contribute would be the best we could do for our future generations, and the rest of the world would, for very good reasons admire Luxembourg more.