Keep it fundamental

As a young kid I was a collector of almost anything one can think of. Natural objects such as rocks, (dried) plants, animal skeletons and insects had my particular interest. I spent hours looking at insect wings and drawing them as I saw them through the objective of my kiddy microscope. Or growing salt crystals with my home chemistry set. In hindsight it must be no wonder for my parents that I ended up doing a PhD in the natural sciences. Because at our Kavli Institute of Nanoscience, people are pursuing exactly what I was practicing for back in the days: purely curiosity-driven research: fundamental research, often without a direct apparent practical application. Take the viral polymerase molecular motors I’m observing through my microscope-for-grown-ups these days; in the far future this may lead to novel anti-viral vaccines, but as for now, all we really want to do is understand how nature works. People in the lab are not in it for the money, they are driven by curiosity.

In the Netherlands, however, I often get the impression that re- search without an apparent practical application is frowned upon. If the question “how can we make money off of this?” is left unanswered for too long, or if a link with industry isn’t made too soon, funding tends to dry up quickly. Even at sticht- ing FOM, the Dutch organization for fundamental research on matter, a strong emphasis is made on how a PhD candidate should be able to ‘valorize’ his or her research.

At the recent Nanofront kick-off event, speaker Tjerk Oosterkamp set a target saying that 10% of all PhD students in this fundamental field should end up having their own start-up company. I think this is a wrong starting point. Of course more often than not, even the most fundamental research leads to useful practical applications at some point. But having this question in the back of your mind as a researcher leads to primitive, short-term based research.

This is also one of the main conclusions from a recent report from the Dutch advisory council for science and technology (AWT). The council compared the degree of innovation in science and technology between The Netherlands and Germany. A few observations: Germany spends almost double the percentage of its GDP on R&D. As opposed to our germanic neighbors, The Netherlands has made a habit of changing strategies and fund allocations, and cooperation with industry now is often a prerequisite. Since the economic crises of 1970s, The Netherlands, together with other Western countries save Germany, has moved towards becoming a post-industrial society. Germany has consistently invested in fundamental research and (high-tech) industry. In our small country, we’ve adopted the Anglo Saxon view that companies should be lead by people with financial backgrounds and MBAs instead of people with a background in the core business of the company. The consequences – Germany’s booming high-tech industry and the struggles of all other Western nations – are, I think, self-explanatory.

A prime example of this shift away from fundamental research is the decline of Phillips’ NatLab in recent decades. This was once a phenomenal research institute where hundreds of world-class scientists were encouraged to pursue their curiosity-driven, fundamental research. NatLab used to be the Dutch equivalent of Bell Labs in the US, and many inventions in radio and audio technology were made. Nowadays enormous budget cuts and reorganizations have decimated NatLab’s size and reputation. Phillips has adopted the (ironically, quite appropriate) slogan ‘sense and simplicity’. The top management seems more bothered by the look & feel that a certain color LED lamp invokes than developing revolutionary high-tech electronics and devices.

I say it is time for politics and management to wake up and value science for what it is. As for all the PhD students doing fundamental research out there: let curiosity be the main driving force behind your project.

Published in the 7th Kavli newsletter, June 2013.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *