What is the aim of fundamental science? We have all asked ourselves this question, and however naive it may seem, we often have to provide an answer. When the question comes from policy makers and funding agencies, we suspect ulterior motives. Therefore, rather than explain that the purpose is to gain knowledge and understanding, which is the essence of fundamental science, it is easier to raise an equally important aspect: most of the greatest technological advances are the direct or indirect consequence of not politically oriented research. One example that is often mentioned is the invention of the laser. From a “solution without a problem” it has become a major industry with ever expanding applications. And nowadays, the laser has gone back to research laboratories and is at the heart of many experimental setups. But the question remains, is direct and ultimately fast transfer from fundamental science to industry an exception?
It turns out that many start-up companies have been created, in particular in optics. It is easy to name quite a few success stories that derive directly from fundamental research. I had the unexpected opportunity to participate in such an adventure. My main research expertise is in quantum optics, and this field of research consists of tailoring the quantum fluctuations of light in order, for instance, to break the sensitivity limit imposed by vacuum fluctuations. What we do well as experimental physicists is to develop new apparatus to face the challenges we impose upon ourselves. In our case, we wanted to reorganize spatially the quantum fluctuations of a light beam, and ended up developing a system that will potentially lead to the next generation of purely classical fibre communications networks. This is potentially a huge market and we funded a start-up company, of which I am still a scientific advisor, though I am no longer involved on a daily basis.
Is there a magic recipe? Of course not, but we still have a responsibility, to be aware that fundamental science may lead to potential industrial developments. In our case, after developing the new apparatus, we had no real idea of what the applications might be, but as it did perform a task that was nearly impossible previously, we decided to patent it. Then, thanks to standard scientific communication (conferences, papers, etc…), we were approached by a telecommunications company, who did find the first application of our system. Beyond this personal story, why did it work? More than finding the proper technology, it is all about finding the right people. We, as researchers, are likely not to be the best at seeing potential applications. I believe we should encourage and trigger innovation, but then transfer the knowledge so that we can go back doing what we do best. This we can commit to: patent relevant developments, communicate on our results, and transfer to industry. Our institutions should help us do this, making it fast, simple and efficient. The next generation of young and motivated scientists should be better trained and encouraged to be more involved in the innovation process. We should never forget however that when we do fundamental research, its intrinsic quality should remain the main criterion for its support.
Professor at University Pierre and Marie Curie and Laboratoire Kastler Brossel
Co-funder of CAILabs (http://www.cailabs.com)