New laser technologies are paving the way to an explosion of knowledge about how the trillions of cells in our bodies work. But this would not have been possible without a discovery made one hundred years ago by an Australian physicist working in a Cambridge laboratory.
William Bragg discovered that the patterns formed when X-rays get scattered by crystalline substances are related to the structure of the individual molecules within the crystal. In effect, Bragg was using X-rays to visualise structures many times smaller than could be observed by any microscope. Biological samples such as proteins have historically been challenging to study using Bragg's methods. But powerful X-rays from the new lasers can be used to unlock the secrets of thousands of previously unstudied proteins, many of which are attractive drug targets of significant medical and commercial importance.
Bragg was motivated by curiosity into understanding something novel and exciting about how the natural world works, bound only by his imagination. But, like much "blue-skies" research, Bragg's discoveries had profound long-term economic significance despite the initial distance from commercial application.
Much of this remarkable research has been performed in the UK, attracting some of the best scientists in the world, and has been recognized by numerous Nobel prizes. For example, by bouncing X-rays off crystalline DNA, researchers discovered how DNA is built up, forming an 'instruction manual' to our cells that can be copied. This discovery was important in developing ways to read the genetic code. Recently, revolutionary techniques such as the Solexa platform developed in the UK have dramatically improved the speed and costs of reading DNA sequences. These technologies have already delivered major economic returns, and a flood of data is having a considerable impact on our understanding of cancer development and the genetics of complex diseases.
Beyond biological applications, Bragg's methods are of contemporary importance in understanding the properties of semiconductors, essential components of electronic circuits. This is critical for improving computing power, a fundamental sector of the future global economy. X-ray analysis devices are even installed on NASA's Curiosity Rover, used in the study of rocks and chemicals on the surface of Mars.
Scientific history is littered with examples of blue-skies research ultimately leading to major economic gains many years later. Lasers, first investigated by physicists in the 1960s, now have wide-ranging applications including CD players, eye surgery, and manufacturing. Monoclonal antibodies, a class of biological molecule discovered almost 40 years ago, have had significant commercial success, including for UK biotech spinouts as cancer therapeutics, delivering improvements in patient survival for numerous cancer types.
Blue-skies research is therefore a vital driver of wealth creation, as well as improved medical treatments, quality of life, and a healthy and happy society.
At the same time, economic gains from basic research are inherently difficult to quantify due to the long timeframes involved. Scientists must justify the significance, quality and value of blue-skies research - particularly at a time of government austerity. These international standards are met by a rigorous peer review process.
All scientific reports must pass review successfully before publication, demanding anonymous expert comment and further criticism of methodology, interpretation and underlying assumptions. Similarly, grants and research programmes within universities and associated institutes are reviewed for quality by panels of independent external scientists.
This means of self-regulation by the scientific community ensures funding is already prioritised towards worthy blue-skies research focussed on the principal unanswered questions within the field. Nevertheless, government also has a role in ensuring science budgets are directed towards research into key issues affecting society, such as climate change and medical research for an ageing population.
The UK has a strong tradition in scientific research. We produce 13.8% of the world's most-cited academic papers, reflecting the high impact and quality of our work. Talented scientists are drawn from all over the world by the excellence of our academic institutions.
Although research in the UK is already highly efficient, our investment in science is the lowest in the G7 apart from Italy, and has declined since the 1980s. The current government froze the research budget at the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review, a 10% cut in real terms excluding capital. OECD analyses also demonstrate that public research spending stimulates industrial investment.
If we continue to underfund science, the UK will be unable to compete internationally for resources, infrastructure and recruitment of leading scientists.
Public investment in basic research is essential for a flourishing economy; it signals commitment to investors, talented scientists, and the ever-watchful industry. But the long-term nature of socioeconomic gains from blue-skies research means we must commit to secure and long-term funding growth.
A plan for science funding is vital if we are to lay the foundations of the UK's future economy. The Liberal Democrats have recently adopted a motion for cross-party consensus for a 15-year annual increase in the science budget, revenue and capital, of 3% above inflation. We hope other political parties can also rise to this challenge, to secure the UK's future as a global knowledge-based economic power.
Underinvestment in blue-skies research is in danger of limiting our country's potential. But if we commit to a stimulus for science, then it's not the sky that's the limit, only our imaginations.