One day, Sir, you may tax it

“One day, Sir, you may tax it”… Those are the words I used to get the audience's attention during my talk at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, where I was invited to speak about the science agenda in 2011. For those of you who don’t know the quote, it was Michael Faraday’s response to William Gladstone when asked to comment on the utility of his blue-sky research into the newfangled phenomenon of electricity.


So what does a 19th century English scientist have to do with the science agenda today? A great deal, I would contend. Faraday was doing basic science, but he had the foresight to realise that through applied research his findings could one day be developed into something taxable – as it turned out, electric light. Faraday had a sense of the potential of his blue-sky research, but he also appreciated that basic science alone is not enough. This was my key message in Davos.

Governments often speak of basic and applied science as if we have a choice. We do not. The two form part of a virtuous circle that we interrupt at our peril. We need both if we’re to lay the foundations for future prosperity, and we need to ensure that knowledge is shared between the two.

The modern day example I chose to illustrate the importance of the cycle of basic and applied science comes straight from CERN. In the 1970s, we worked with the Geneva cantonal hospital to build one of the first PET scanners. In the 1980s, we developed imaging crystals for our particle detectors. Such crystals are now widely used in PET scanners. In the 1990s, CERN scientists working with industry developed electronics to readout those crystals inside a strong magnetic field. And now, that advance is allowing a new kind of medical scanner to be developed, combining the complementary techniques of PET and MRI.

What this story tells us is that while basic science drives innovation, it’s equally true that applied science fuels basic research. It’s the constant interplay between the two that really drives things forward. Once particle physicists have developed a technology that suits their needs, they stop and get on with their research. They are not the ones to carry through the R&D to market. On the other hand, without the results of applied research, the particle physicists would not have the basic technology to build on.

Basic science is the ultimate driver of innovation. Without it, there’s no science to apply. It attracts the brightest young minds to science as a whole, providing talent for future innovation. But basic science alone is not enough. My message at Davos was that we do not have a choice between basic and applied science. We need both. Our future prosperity depends on it.

Rolf Heuer