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The Benefits of Investments in Basic Research

by Peter Lincoln on Sun, November 01, 2009

Long-term investments in basic research produce the major conceptual breakthroughs necessary for creating radically new technologies. To be sure, scientists cannot make specific promises about future advances, and there often are long delays in the applications that arise from basic research. Furthermore, sometimes applied research leads to important basic knowledge, and technologies developed for basic research can lead to broader applications. Throughout history, advances in scientific knowledge have resulted in revolutions in technology that have improved the standard of living and enhanced our way of life.

The economic impact of innovations derived from basic research is substantial. Recent studies have estimated that the average annual rate of return on R&D investment ranges from 28 percent to 50 percent, depending on the assumptions used. While there is some uncertainty in these numbers, there is general agreement that the impact is huge and that past investment has paid for itself many times over.*

The goal of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI) is to increase this rate of return on research investments both by speeding up the process and by facilitating even better results.

In addition, OSTI maintains the DOE R&D Accomplishments database, an important resource about the outcomes of past research and development investments that have had significant economic impact, improved people’s lives or been widely recognized as remarkable advances in science.

Investments in basic research in the physical sciences have led to countless major contributions to society and commerce. Here are some representative examples:

  • Research in nuclear, high energy and condensed matter physics has led to remarkable tools for the non-invasive diagnosis and treatment of disease, including development of:

    + PET scans,

    + MRIs, and

    + nuclear medicine and cancer therapies.

  • Quantum mechanics, the theory developed to explain the structure of the atom, underlies some of our most important technologies, including:

    + computers,

    + lasers,

    + consumer electronics,

    + telecommunications,

    + atomic clocks,

    + superconductors, and

    + the World Wide Web, which originally was developed to enable physicists worldwide to collaborate and share data.

  • Fundamental research in basic energy sciences has resulted in a wide array of advances, including:

    + lithium batteries that offer high-energy storage capacity and an environmentally benign alternative to lead batteries;

    + new and improved metals, plastics, and other composite materials used in machine tools, packaging, military hardware, motor vehicles and a host of other products;

    + refrigeration devices that cool without moving parts and without the use of freons;

    + processes for extraction of radioactive and hazardous metal ions from solutions for nuclear fuel purification/reprocessing and for cleanup of radioactive wastes; and

    + superconducting wires than can lead to more efficient types of power generation, transmission, and electrical devices.

  • Accelerators, originally invented to study the interactions of subatomic particles, now also are used for a wide range of applications, such as:

    + designing new drugs,

    + fabricating semiconductors and microchips, and

    + studying the structure of viruses.

  • Neutron-scattering instruments, which enable researchers to study the structure of even the smallest samples of physical and biological matter, have contributed to advances in:

    + jet engines,

    + credit cards,

    + pocket calculators,

    + compact disks,

    + magnetic recording tapes,

    + shatter-proof windshields,

    + adjustable seats, and

    + satellite weather information for forecasting.

  • Basic research in advanced scientific computing led to the development of:

    + a pair of computational software packages – now standards in the high-performance computer industry worldwide – that enable scientists to make effective use of networks of workstations and massively parallel computers, and

    + the high-performance, efficient libraries of numerical linear algebra software that are a critical part of the world’s scientific computing infrastructure – and used by thousands of researchers worldwide.

  • DOE research on radiation’s effect on human cells led to the launching of the Human Genome Project – and its many important consequences:

    + development of DNA sequencing and computational technologies,

    + the successful unraveling of the human genetic code,

    + the promise of gene therapies for such diseases as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, diabetes, and cancer,

    + and the prospect of using genetic techniques to harness microbes that can eat pollution, create hydrogen, and absorb carbon dioxide.

* This introduction is adapted from “Will innovation flourish in the future?” by Jerome I. Friedman, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics, as published in the December 2002-January 2003 issue of The Industrial Physicist and available at

Lincoln served as Senior Communications Advisor in the DOE Office of Science from 2002 to mid-2009 and is now a Senior Advisor in OSTI.

Other Related Topics: basic research, doe r&d, scientific knowledge
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