Earlier this year MIT published “The Future Postponed“, a report examining different areas in which basic research could have profound economic significance.The authors of the report postulate that declining investment in basic research could lead to an innovation deficit in The United States, precipitating our decline as one of the biggest economic powerhouses of the world.
Some of these topics are very familiar; few doubt that robotics is going to be a major driver of trends in technology and economics, and that investing in robotics research will be a key maneuver for any country wanting to position itself as a technology leader. The same goes for supercomputing, space exploration, and cybersecurity.
Others are relatively unfamiliar. Research into catalysts — chemicals which quicken or facilitate other chemical processes — has the potential to revolutionize whole swathes of the global economy. The right catalysts could foster the development of artificial photosynthesis, better manufacturing of plastics, and processes for converting CO2 into energy, among many, many other advances. But the catalysts used today are crude by comparison to the ones found in the metabolic processes of living organisms. Some of the biggest efforts to understand these naturally-occurring catalysts are being made in China and Germany, not The United States.
Plant science is another arena overlooked even by those with an interest in the future. Simply put, food production and nutrient density need to increase significantly or billions of people are going to starve. This would have already occurred had it not been for the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century, but even deeper advances will be required to meet the demands of a rapidly expanding population. Basic research will hopefully allow for the creation of cereal crops with elevated nutrients like Vitamin A, as well as crops that are resistant to a panoply of diseases.
Funding basic research of this sort can be difficult, in part because it’s usually pretty expensive and because, by its very nature, it isn’t always clear what sort of payoff can be expected. But if the history of science has demonstrated anything, it’s that digging as far down into the bedrock of reality as possibly usually proves fruitful in the long run.