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Basic Research and Innovation

by Dr. Jeffrey Salmon 24 Mar, 2014 in


Basic Research and Innovation

Recently, I attended a roundtable discussion hosted by the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. on the topic of innovation – how it comes about, what factors can impede it, where the U.S. might be headed as a lead innovator in the 21st Century, and what cultural and ethical issues need to be considered in a complete understanding of innovation.

As a science and technology agency, the Department of Energy (DOE) cares a great deal about questions surrounding innovation.  As an information management agency within DOE, the Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI) works to accelerate innovation through the sharing of knowledge.  We also love to point out where DOE has done just that.

The discussion at Hudson on innovation was rich and multi-layered.  But there were a set of key ideas and arguments that should be of particular interest to DOE and OSTI.

Organization and Innovation.  What kind of organization best drives innovation?  The answer is not completely clear.  Is innovation or rapid development of technology more likely to come about today through a large, multidisciplinary enterprise, such as our DOE national laboratories, i.e. “big science,” or through a nimble, relatively small market-shaped group of entrepreneurs?  But even this way of posing the question isn’t precise.  It could be that the requirements for basic research today call for big science, but that application of that research to technology development is more likely to flourish where customer feedback is immediate and the consequences of failure brutal.  Certainly, something like this latter point was strongly suggested in the think-tank conversation.  Still there are gradations of technology development, and understanding when something is poised for market deployment is very difficult.  

Innovation in Energy.  While the extraordinary economic impact of...

Related Topics: basic research, doe research, economic impact, Hudson Institute, innovation


The Benefits of Investments in Basic Research

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: