Basic research is at the very heart of evolution as Tony Wheatley discovers.
Research is the manifestation of man’s thirst for knowledge and although human knowledge has increased continually, the rate of progress has definitely accelerated in the last few centuries.
Admiral Hyman Rickover of the US Navy, who was universally acknowledged as the ‘father’ of the nuclear powered submarine, estimated in the 1960’s that the sum total of human knowledge doubles about every 15 years.
Estimates of the rate at which knowledge is increasing today, based on the number of patents filed and the number of academic papers published, show that many fields are doubling in under 10 years and a few in as little as 2 to 3 years. Kenneth Boulding, who spearheaded an evolutionary approach to economics in the same era postulated, “Knowledge and the growth of human knowledge, therefore, is the essential key to economic development.”
When Vannevar Bush, Scientific Advisor to President Rooseveldt, stated in 1945, “Scientific Progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown,” he recognised the importance of Basic Research, which may be described as having no direct link to a given application.
The fact that Basic Research underpins social development and an increase in economic competitiveness, has gained worldwide acceptance.
The structural differences in the way Basic Research is funded and co-ordinated between the United States of America (US) and the Union of European states (EU) appears to have significantly influenced academic achievement, when measured by the number of Nobel Prizes awarded in Physiology/Medicine, Physics and Chemistry.
European Strategy for Basic Research
A Communication from the Commission of the European Communities issued in 2004, contains pertinent comments about their future strategy for Research:
“An important debate is taking place in Europe today on the subject of basic research, the issues involved and the best way of dealing with them at a European level. The debate is taking place against the background of the emerging knowledge-based economy and society; within the framework of the project to create a European Research Area, which has hitherto not explicitly taken account of the issue of basic research; and together with the target set by the EU of increasing its overall research effort to 3% of GDP by 2010.”
“In general terms, support for basic research has also been traditionally regarded as one of the tasks of the public authorities. This kind of support is more necessary than ever today because of: The indirect, but undeniable, impact of basic research on economic competitiveness, growth and, more generally, well-being;
The growing cost of basic research due in particular to the cost of the instruments, equipment and infrastructure needed . . . ;
The value of knowledge as public property . . . , this being easier to guarantee if there is public funding.
There would seem to be a need for this public support to be given at a European level.”
The idea of a European Research Area (ERA) grew out of the realisation that research in Europe suffers from three weaknesses: insufficient funding, lack of an environment to stimulate research and exploit results, and the fragmented nature of activities and the dispersal of resources.
“The situation is urgent.
Without a co-ordinated impulse and a determined effort to increase and better organise the European research effort, Europe might compromise its chances of taking full advantage of the potential offered by the transition to a knowledge-based economy and society. This will not be without its negative impact on growth and employment,” cited a statement from the Commission of the European Communities on 18th January 2000.
In October 2007 the Commission released the Preliminary Results of consultations on the ERA Green Paper published in April 2007.
While this debate continues, the European Scientific Council met for the first time in October 2005 and this resulted in the establishment of the European Research Council (ERC) with a total budget of €7.5bn over the next 7 years. The ERC was inaugurated at a conference in Berlin in February 2007, with the first direct grants totalling almost €300m offered that same year.
Basic Research strategy of the US
Up to 150 Research Universities form the backbone of the Basic Research system in the US that has earned a huge international reputation and these attract the majority of private and public funds. Government support for Basic Research is channelled mainly through a few major federal agencies.
Private sector funding for basic research in the US is also substantial often through private philanthropic foundations that derive funding from industry and from individual donations. Private research centres like the Bell Laboratories, IBM and Microsoft also contribute significantly to basic research.
The one obvious weakness of the American model is that researchers lack the security of long term funding and must continually canvas new sources. Despite this, it has proved very effective in the development of basic research and also in facilitating industrial exploitation of its output by encouraging healthy competition between teams at national level and fostering co-operation between business and academic institutions.
The extent to which the US has dominated many fields of research is illustrated by this statement from Victor de Lorenzo, Chair of the European Group of Life Sciences, “. . . . it is shocking that the factual monopoly of the exploration of the global genetic contents of the biosphere . . . by the US is being left unchecked by Europe.”
Basic Research in Japan
Prior to the start of the 21st century Japan’s considerable expenditure on research was focused almost completely on adapting and applying technologies that were developed elsewhere. However, this has changed and the new emphasis on Basic Research has resulted in Japan winning 4 Nobel prizes since 2000, in contrast with only 3 in the previous history of the award.
Industry – University collaboration
Universities, especially in the US, are actively pushing the commercialisation of their inventions through spin-offs, and technology and patent licensing.
The political agenda of stimulating collaboration between universities and the industry, technology transfer and commercialisation of university-born inventions can also be perceived in Europe. New legislation regarding the ability of universities to hold shares in companies has been issued in Finland, for example.
Many forms of university-industry collaboration exist and it is becoming increasingly common that various external parties are involved in university research activities. There has also been pressure towards European universities driving the commercialisation of inventions originated from open research. Managing the shift without losing sight of universities’ primary functions and public responsibilities is a challenging task.
Globalisation and the R&D outsourcing revolution
While the European countries struggle to find consensus, the structure of the ERA nations on the other side of the globe have realised that R&D is big business and their governments are determined to gain a share of this growing and strategically important industry.
Global R&D spending continues to expand on a global basis at a substantially higher rate than most countries’ inflation rates, to exceed $1 trillion in 2006 (Figure 1, page 39).
China, India and other countries in East and southern Asia have seized an opportunity to exploit the soaring cost of conducting R&D programmes in Europe and the US.
The strategies they have implemented are attracting foreign industries to shift more and more of their R&D activity to new subsidiary operations, joint venture research ventures or outsourcing on a contract basis to new R&D enterprises in the east.
According to R&D magazine, “The US has been the global leader in overall R&D spending, performance and achievement for more than 25 years . . . , that status is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Japan has been a strong number two in R&D investments during this same period, closely tracking at about 41% to the 45% of the US’ R&D spending.” (Figure 2).
Nanotechnology applications to exceed $1 trillion in less than 10 years
Worldwide, governments are funding research in Nanotechnology, to ensure that future emerging technologies based on these materials are competitive with those from other regions. The US Government Nanotechnology R&D Act of 2004, for example, provides for about $1bn per year through 2008.
Corporate R&D funding is estimated to be about twice that this year with overall global funding at several times that as well. If you include electronics, life science, and coatings applications research, the overall R&D spending on nanotechnology in the US is about $26bn. Leading countries working in this area are the US, Japan, China, and Germany. More than 4,000 companies around the world are thought to be working on nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology is more than just the development of a new class of materials, in many cases it is an enabling technology allowing the creation of entirely new applications. While there has been a substantial amount of R&D on nanotechnology, there are relatively few nano-enabled technologies in commercial use.
Current nano-applications being heavily researched include life science, pharmaceuticals, medical diagnostics, food, environmental technologies, water, energy, electronics and mechanical engineering. The National Science Foundation has stated that the overall market for nanotechnology applications will exceed $1 trillion by 2015.
Global change in the infotech rules
Information and communications technologies consume more global R&D spending than even the large health and life science sector.
The large industrial organisations in this technology sector serve extremely volatile markets with products having an effective life cycle of less than a year. The telecommunications sector with its mergers and acquisitions and overbuilt capital infrastructure, can no longer sustain their previous annual growth in R&D spending.
The global industrial community is already changing (with some effects due to normal economic cycles) with R&D spending in SIC 3674 (Semiconductor, related devices) expected to increase 7.5% in 2007, down from an 8.6% increase in 2006.
Electronic computers (SIC 3571) will see flat R&D growth of 2.1% in 2007, the same as in 2006. Computer communication equipment (SIC 3576) is expected to increase 8.5% in 2007, down slightly from 8.7% in 2006. And radio and TV communication equipment (SIC 3663) R&D spending will drop to 6.3% in 2007 from 7.8% in 2006.
Finally, R&D spending in telephone and telegraph apparatus (SIC 3661) will stay its depressed course and only see a 1% increase in 2007 (negative growth when adjusted for inflation), the same as in 2006.
The rapidly changing world of Biotech
As biotechnology has matured into a global industry, Europe and the US have been ousted from their position of dominance and the number of countries (led by China and India) supporting viable and growing life science industries continues to expand.
Specialised companies like Amgen and Genentech as the leaders have similarly been upstaged by the likes of EU based GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis, AstraZeneca, and Roche, and US-based Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Eli Lilly, Wyeth and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Stem cell research is one of the leading biotech opportunities, which has been limited in some countries due to political restrictions demanded by religious activists, but supported vigorously in others. In the rapidly changing R&D arena, pharmaceutical companies are increasingly taking their clinical trials offshore to emerging markets in order to reduce the overall cost of drug development.
Human knowledge is increasing more rapidly than ever before, but unfortunately there is little evidence that human wisdom is keeping pace.
It would be encouraging to observe that the preservation of our terrestrial environment was a critical factor in all major research investment decisions, but financial return on investment still appears to be the primary criteria and that seems a pity.