Why curiosity is the secret to scientific breakthroughs

In 1839 a young Frenchman, Alexandre Edmond Becquerel, experimented with electricity in his father’s lab. He was passionate about phenomena of magnetism, electricity and optics, which scientists had only started to understand. He noticed a strange occurrence: an electrolytic cell generated more energy when it was exposed to sunlight. He called it the photovoltaic effect.

Forty years had to pass for another two scientists, William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day, to discover the photovoltaic effect in a solid substance. Then, in 1905, Albert Einstein explained the fundamental physics of it, which ultimately led to the quantum revolution in physics. Yet even eight years later, great physicists such as Max Planck considered this explanation foolish. With an apparent lack of practical applications, all these breakthroughs had not been taken forward until a US company, Bell Labs, made the world’s first useful solar cell in the 1950s. The rest is history.

Why am I telling this story? Because if we want to make sure future generations can overcome their energy challenges, we must support and strengthen ambitious research without expecting any immediate practical or technological results.

Becquerel didn’t look for new sources of energy. Einstein had no idea that the phenomenon he had explained could have dramatic implications for energy generation. Today, however, we can make use of decades of their and other scientists’ major contributions to basic research, which had both direct and indirect consequences.

We need to fund research in the most basic scientific disciplines where researchers, driven by curiosity, pursue what they believe is their challenging mission: to try to better understand the world in which we live. The cultural and philosophical importance of what these researchers do is undeniable: quenching humanity’s thirst for new knowledge demands frontier research.

New frontiers in research

In Europe, such a concept lies at the heart of the European Research Council (ERC), created in 2007 to promote world-class frontier research with a long-term view. The ERC supports highly talented researchers in Europe, allowing them to pursue their most innovative ideas, pushing the frontiers of current knowledge. The ERC’s bottom-up approach gives scientists the freedom to conduct “blue sky” research without any thematic priorities.

ERC-funded research has already shattered existing scientific paradigms in the area of solar cells. Conventional solar cells are expensive because they require very pure silicon – an expensive material. Dye-sensitized solar cells (DSCs) are a much cheaper alternative. Until recently, they have been substantially less efficient.

The research in this area has really taken off. Further improvements of perovskite solar cells have increased their efficiency close to those of conventional silicon-based cells at much lower production costs. With the help of an ERC “proof of concept” grant that is top-up funding to bring pioneering work closer to market, Snaith’s team has been able to enhance the stability of the new solar cells and filed a number of patents. Oxford Photovoltaics Limited was founded as a spin-out from the University of Oxford to commercialize this new technology.

The long game

The history of science shows very clearly that curiosity-driven research contributes in an irreplaceable way to technological progress. Basic research has an important, and sometimes unexpected, economic impact. But the gap between fundamental research and innovation can be considerable, if nothing else because of a possible long time span. Scientific breakthroughs cannot be programmed in advance: an investigation into a particular scientific area might not pay off for years – or at all. But when it does pay off, the economic and other rewards can be enormous.

To close the circle, it’s worth noting that since 1989 the European Commission has been sponsoring a prize for outstanding merits in photovoltaics. It’s named after Alexandre Edmond Becquerel.

The Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2015 will take place in Dalian, China, from 9-11 September.

Author: Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President, European Research Council (ERC)

Image: A scientist separates proteins by gel electrophoresis in a lab at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton, July 15, 2013. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

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