For researchers involved in curiosity-driven research, the title of this article may sound like something of an oxymoron. We perceive that there is pressure from governments and funding agencies to shift toward more applied research, to create innovations which might have immediate benefit for society, and to generate economic wealth. Of course we have a duty to explain to the wider public how and why we are using resources, but often in the context of a funding application we find it difficult to explain why understanding the fundamental forces of nature is of benefit to society. Are we right to feel pressured, or are we misinterpreting what is expected of us?
Any application to the Academy of Finland should not only emphasise scientific excellence, but also include a section on “Impact beyond Academia”. This is often where we begin to struggle, to put the importance of our research in this context. The Academy themselves provide a nice guide on possible contributions of research to impact outside of the direct research field (https://www.aka.fi/globalassets/10rahoitus/liiteet/sa_vaikuttavuuden_nakokulmat_en.pdf).
They provide five headings under which research can potentially contribute: Economy and Commerce, Health and Wellbeing, Public Services and Societal Functions, The Environment and Natural Resources, World Views, Cultures and Human Understanding.
Under each of these headings, potential impacts are further expanded upon, with examples. There are around 60 bulleted examples in the document. As I read through them, I could make an honest connection between fundamental research carried out in the Accelerator Laboratory and at least twenty of the examples, under all headings. Clearly there are too many to be listed here, but as an example our research field involves development of new measurement and detection techniques which have and will be used in medical and other applications, in so-called “3S” applications of radiation (Safety, Security, Safeguards), food security, process management and quality control. We also train experts in a highly international and demanding laboratory environment, where skills in project management and effective co-operation and communication are essential to success. Our visitors attracted by scientific excellence contribute to the local economy.
We could bow to the perceived pressure, and dedicate more of the valuable accelerator time to applications, but this would come at the expense of lower scientific impact. Many of our contributions to impact beyond academia come over a long time period, even decades, but the impact is certainly significant. With patience, we can have both high scientific impact and significant societal benefit. One can only hope that our governments, funding agencies and peers evaluating our proposals are also willing to be patient and see the long-term benefits of our fundamental research.
Professor and Director of the Accelerator Laboratory
Department of Physics