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: