Science and technological innovations have been among the most powerful drivers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But ensuring that science can continue to address social challenges for the years ahead will require greater investments in basic research and better use of existing talent.
“We don’t have industry supporting basic research to the extent that it used to,” says Subra Suresh, president of Carnegie Mellon University, at last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos.
In the past, corporate institutions such as Bell Labs provided long-term funding for fundamental research, which led to breakthroughs like the transistor. The short-term pressures on science and business today are not conducive to basic research, which can takes decades to deliver results.
Governments can play a greater role in enabling greater private support for basic sciences. “The bargain that we have to make as politicians is to say [to businesses]: we will lower your barriers, but think about investing in science,” says Carlos Moedas, Commissioner, Research, Science and Innovation at the European Commission.
Elizabeth Blackburn, professor at the University of California, San Francisco, notes that short-term pressures can stifle scientists’ desire to solve complex challenges. “Let scientists have long leashes,” she says. Tenure requirements, grant applications and stipulations from the private sector could be better aligned to allow scientists to work on longer time frames.
Another way to improve the outlook for scientific innovation is to make better use of existing talent. While women constitute 40% of doctoral students in the sciences, they comprise a vastly smaller percentage of the scientific workforce. In addition, in some disciplines, scientists spend multiple years in postdoctoral fellowships without being able to find long-term work.
“We know we need all the scientific talent that we can find, and we’re wasting it,” says Suzanne Fortier, principal at Canada’s McGill University.
Political, corporate and structural changes in the sciences could improve societies’ ability to leverage scientific potential. The old model of a lone scientist operating from a lab bench in a white coat is obsolete. “Science is not happening like that now. Science happens from interdisciplinary teams,” says Blackburn.
Some of the most innovative scientific and private-sector institutions encourage this innovation between disciplines. Academia could play a more central role in incentivizing this type of collaboration by prioritising partnerships.
The public has a tendency to focus on large-scale “moonshot” projects, says Mariette DiChristina, editor-in-chief of Scientific American. But this focus on the spectacular discoveries should not obscure the virtues of small-scale innovations. After all, many of the greatest breakthroughs – from GPS to algorithms that match organ donors – have come from unanticipated applications of scientific insights.