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Curiosity-driven research for the future

25.01.2018

What Denmark is spending on publicly funded research at the moment is definitely too little, says Haldor Topsoe’s CEO, Bjerne S. Clausen. Haldor Topsoe devotes 10% of its turnover to research.

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Presently, Denmark uses around 1% of its GDP on publicly funded research. Should this number be higher or lower? And what kind of research should be funded by the state?

I would argue that the state should spend significantly more. And a large part of this investment should be directed to basic research driven by curiosity. Mainly because research should not be seen as just an expense for society but as an essential investment in our future and that of our children.

In Haldor Topsoe, we reinvest over 10% of our turnover in research, some of it very close to basic research. Numerous high-tech companies do exactly the same. All of us do it for one simple reason: We have to be constantly inventing and developing innovative products if we want to stay competitive in today’s global market.

At the same time, NATO demands that defense expenses should constitute at least 2% of a country’s GDP. I believe that at least the same level of ambition should apply to publicly funded research then. It will most likely provide a better return on investment.

More curiosity-driven research

I would also like to strike a blow for basic research driven by curiosity. Without it, the world of today would probably look a lot different. We wouldn’t have the Internet, cell phones, radio, TV, lasers, and electric engines to drive electric cars, just to name a few. It thus makes a lot of sense that public research should, to a significant extent, be basic research.

Of course, there must be room for strategic research as well but let’s not turn universities into business development departments for companies. Universities have the obligation to teach and conduct scientific research so as to shape skilled candidates for both society and the business world. Basic research makes that possible in the most optimal way.

Moreover, the history of science has clearly shown that curiosity-driven basic research is actually a prerequisite for applied research so it will in turn help companies to solve technological issues as well.

Looking into the future

Without basic research, our society will not only be poorer economically but also lacking in crucial knowledge, as important discoveries will not be made.  

The world needs all kinds of research in order to solve global challenges. For example, the development of competitive sustainable technologies to replace those based on fossil energy will require a massive investment in research. We need developments within chemistry, materials chemistry, electrochemistry and physics in order to develop for instance better and more durable batteries and greener (biodegradable) chemicals. We also need to learn how to convert CO2 into something more useful.

Research can of course bring similar advances in other areas like medicine, IT and communication. However, it will only happen under one condition: We have to invest in our future and dare give room for curiosity and basic research. 

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