Basic Research: ‘What Has Physics Ever Done for Us?’

I confess, my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek as I ask this question. We know physics research has contributed immeasurable benefits to humankind. This was exactly what Alfred Nobel sought to celebrate when he set out his vision for the Nobel Prizes. In some cases, however, those benefits are more obvious than in others.

Consider the humble blue LED, whose invention won Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics. Its impact has been immense. The device was the last piece of the puzzle needed to replace old-school lighting – filament and fluorescent bulbs – with LEDs.

No bigger than a fingernail, LEDs last 100 times longer than a filament bulb and use a fraction of the electricity. Reducing both carbon emissions and power bills, they are well-suited to off-grid lighting powered by renewable energy; communities in remote or poor areas benefit in particular.

Here, the research had a well-defined goal, its impact on society was anticipated and the technology was soon available for everyday use. However, not all physics research has such clear or immediate benefits. Physicists doing fundamental research don’t typically set out to change the world. Rather, understanding the universe better is the goal.

Double Laureate Marie Curie was unapologetic about her motivation. It wasn’t to help people with cancer, despite publicity to the contrary: “Scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science,” she declared in 1921.

Can you imagine using these words to persuade a politician that a new telescope or particle accelerator should be funded? Perhaps not. But, as romantic as they might seem, there’s sense in them. It’s been repeatedly proven that basic research is a pipeline that feeds applied research (and vice versa). Without it, countless advances – not just in physics –simply wouldn’t have happened.

The CMS detector in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Benefits of the Large Hadron Collider outweigh the costs by billions of euros, even when the long-term benefits of discoveries are not considered. © CERN

Years in the Making

A classic example is GPS technology, used for everything from the navigation of airliners, to tracking the exact location of pizza deliveries. In 2017, the market for devices was valued at $38 billion and set to grow. Here, Albert Einstein’s work on relativity over a century ago and other fundamental research that led to the atomic clock has been critical.

More directly, high-end technology developed for basic research – from detectors and materials to algorithms – can prove useful outside academia. A famous example is Wi-fi technology developed by Australian astronomers. Used daily by billions, it was invented on the back of research searching for ultra-weak radio signals from mini black holes, though the black holes were never detected, in the end.

Show Me the Money

To help inform decisions on research funding, some have tried to work out the value of basic research. It’s especially important as research becomes increasingly expensive. While the Curies isolated radium in an old shed, particle physicists’ recently announced vision for the next big particle accelerator – a 100-kilometre ring compared to the 27-kilometre Large Hadron Collider – is projected to cost a total of €24 billion. It makes LIGO, which detected gravitational waves for the first time and cost over a billion dollars, look like small fry.

It’s no simple feat, however. Typically, studies haven’t quantified the largest contribution of basic research: the long-term impact of discoveries. This in particular has been deemed simply too hard; how do you work out the value of relativity?

This was the view of Italian physicist Stefano Forte and economists Massimo Florio and Emanuela Sirtori, who did a cost-benefit analysis of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in 2016. The long-term benefits of any discoveries are “an extra bonus for future generations, donated to them by current taxpayers,” they wrote.

Despite being conservative in their calculations, their findings were positive and emphatic: a 90% probability that the benefits of the LHC outweighed its costs, by €2.9 billion. The two largest contributions were human capital effects – specifically, how young researchers’ careers benefit from working at CERN – and technical spillovers. One spillover example is ROOT. Developed at CERN, the free data analysis software has tens of thousands of users outside of high-energy physics, mostly in finance.

So, surely, with benefits like these, there should be no question about funding basic physics research? The good news is that the public recognise its importance. In a 2014 study, for example, 71% of Americans agreed that investments in basic research “usually pay off in the long run”.

Technology developed for basic physics research often finds uses in other fields and sectors. Radiation detectors developed at CERN have applications in PET and CT imaging. © JohnnyGreig/

Difficult Choices

However, from a political point of view at least, several factors muddy the waters. For one, science in general is just one of many areas governments must fund. The decades it takes for relativity-like breakthroughs to feed into life-transforming technology also stretch far beyond the electoral cycle that often drives politicians’ decisions.

Focusing on classic applied research, which has more tangible goals and can be commercialised sooner, can be tempting, especially in difficult times. Following the global financial crisis in 2007-2008, for example, US and Canadian governments shifted away from funding fundamental science

More recently, bosses of six major research organisations, including Germany’s Max Planck Society, expressed concerns about Horizon Europe, the next big EU funding programme. They are unhappy with what they argue is a shift in focus towards applied research that includes comparatively small funding increases for fundamental science. Clearly, both types of research are important, but how do you balance the two?

Looking forward, we can only dream how basic research might change or even save our world. There’s no shortage of challenges as the planet’s population swells and the need for action on climate change becomes increasingly urgent. Will leaps forward come from our understanding of the Higgs boson? What will be the next GPS? One thing is certain, though: if we want the fruits of basic research, we need to keep planting the seeds. In science as in gardening, good things come to those who wait.

Nobel Prize Award Ceremony

Gérard Mourou, 2018 Nobel Laureate in Physics, walks up to receive his Nobel medal at the Prize Ceremony in Stockholm. © Nobel Media. Photo: Alexander Mahmoud

Yesterday on 10 December – the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death – the 2018 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony took place at the Stockholm Concert Hall, Sweden. The recent Nobel Laureates in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine as well as the laureates in Economic Sciences received their Nobel medals and diplomas.

Watch the ceremony here.


Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences 2018 – Innovation, Climate Change and Economic Growth

This blog post is part of a series of articles on the scientific research that led to this year’s Nobel Prizes. The official Nobel Prize Award Ceremony will take place in Stockholm on 10 December 2018.

This year’s ‘Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel’ – often referred as the ‘Nobel Prize in Economics’ – was awarded jointly: to William D. Nordhaus of Yale University “for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis”; and to Paul M. Romer of New York University (NYU) “for integrating technological innovations into long-run macroeconomic analysis.”

The essence of Nordhaus’ pioneering contribution was to develop quantitative techniques for analysing the complex interactions between economic growth and the natural environment – what are known as ‘integrated assessment models’. Romer’s prize-winning breakthrough was also methodological, demonstrating how to analyse the role of knowledge in the creation of new technologies that underpin long-term economic progress. Both provide fundamental insights into how to achieve sustained and sustainable economic growth that can transform people’s lives.

Both had long been tipped as future laureates, but it was a surprise to many that they received the prize together. Top trade economist and VoxEU editor-in-chief Richard Baldwin mused on Twitter: “having sat on a few committees in my life, maybe they agreed to give it for ‘sustainable growth’, but couldn’t find anyone who’d done great work on that, so they gave it to one ‘sustainable’ guy and one ‘growth’ guy”.


William D. Nordhaus portrayed by Peter Badge for the photo array ‘Nobel Heroes‘, © Peter Badge/typos 1 in coop. with Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

In the official announcement, the members of the Prize Committee explained their decision thus: “At its heart, economics deals with the management of scarce resources. Nature dictates the main constraints on economic growth and our knowledge determines how well we deal with these constraints. This year’s laureates have significantly broadened the scope of economic analysis by constructing models that explain how the market economy interacts with nature and knowledge.”

David Warsh, whose book ‘Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery’ charts the history of economists’ understanding of growth, commented: “The link the prize awarders emphasised was the researchers’ shared concern with the failure of markets to deliver desired results. These so-called ‘market failures’ may be negative, as with greenhouse gas emissions that adversely affect the global climate, or they may be positive, as with the knowledge spillovers that occur when technological know-how is widely shared.”

John Cassidy, economics commentator at the New Yorker made a similar point and linked market failure to policy choice: “What unites Nordhaus and Romer is the work they did studying how market economies sometimes fail to work as advertised. While focusing on separate areas, they both examined the problem of market ‘externalities’ or ‘spillovers’, which are a key justification for energy taxes, cap-and-trade schemes, research subsidies and other types of government intervention.”


2018 Laureate in Economic Sciences Paul M. Romer, © Peter Badge/typos 1 in coop. with Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Three VoxEU columns explore the ideas of the new Laureates in Economic Sciences in more detail. In ‘How we create and destroy growth’, Kevin Bryan of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management outlines their work and the connections between them: “Both have at their core the longstanding problem of economic growth: why are some places and times rich and others poor, and what is the impact of these differences?”

Making explicit the link between climate change and innovation, Bryan concludes: “It may be possible to solve climate change by changing the incentives for green innovation, rather than just by making economic growth more expensive by taxing carbon. Going beyond just solving the problem of climate change, to solving it in a way that minimises economic harm, is a hell of an accomplishment, and more than worthy of the Nobel Prizes Romer and Nordhaus won for showing us this path!”

In ‘William Nordhaus and the costs of climate change’, the pioneering environmental economist’s Yale colleague and co-author Kenneth Gillingham shows how “his research can be seen more generally as making a profound contribution towards broadening the scope of economic analysis to shed light on the causes and consequences of how unintended effects of human activity can influence the long-run trajectory of economic growth and wellbeing. This research agenda has covered resource scarcity, economic accounting incorporating environmental considerations and, most notably, seminal work on the economics of global climate change.”

And in ‘New ideas about new ideas’, Stanford University growth theorist Chad Jones explains how: “Romer developed endogenous growth theory, emphasising that technological change is the result of efforts by researchers, entrepreneurs and inventors who respond to economic incentives. Anything that affects their efforts – such as tax policy, basic research funding and education, for example – can potentially influence the long-run prospects of the economy. Romer’s essential contribution is his clear understanding of the economics of ideas and how the discovery of new ideas lies at the heart of economic growth.”


Professor Per Krusell, Member of the Prize Committee for Economic Sciences, was interviewed by freelance journalist Joanna Rose regarding the 2018 Sveriges Riksbanks Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. © Nobel Media AB

William Nordhaus is Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he completed his undergraduate work at Yale and received his PhD in Economics in 1967 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been on the Yale faculty since 1967 and a full professor since 1973.

Paul Romer, who was born in Denver, Colorado, and earned a BS in mathematics and a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago, is the founding director of the NYU Stern Urbanization Project. He has taught at Stanford, was chief economist at the World Bank and started Aplia, an education technology company dedicated to increasing student effort and classroom engagement.

Both of the 2018 Laureates in Economic Sciences are on the front line of current global policy debates. Writing recently in the ‘Wall Street Journal’, Romer urged governments to do more to support science and innovation. And the announcement of his and Nordhaus’ award came in the same week as a special report on global warming by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings offer sincere congratulations to the new laureates and hope to hear from them in person about their research at the 7th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences in 2020 (25–29 August).

Technological Innovation and Climate Change: 2018 Prize in Economic Sciences

Today, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has announced their decision to award the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2018 to William D. Nordhaus “for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis” and Paul M. Romer “for integrating technological innovations into long-run macroeconomic analysis”. 

2018 Laureates in Economic Sciences William D. Nordhaus and Paul Romer. Ilustration: Niklas Elmehed. Copyright: Nobel Media AB 2018

From the press release of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences:

“William D. Nordhaus and Paul M. Romer have designed methods for addressing some of our time’s most basic and pressing questions about how we create long-term sustained and sustainable economic growth. At its heart, economics deals with the management of scarce resources. Nature dictates the main constraints on economic growth and our knowledge determines how well we deal with these constraints. This year’s Laureates William Nordhaus and Paul Romer have significantly broadened the scope of economic analysis by constructing models that explain how the market economy interacts with nature and knowledge.”

Read more about the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2018 here


Bau des Lindauer Nobelpreisträger-Stegs wird fortgesetzt

Am Therese-von-Bayern-Platz vor der neuen Lindauer Inselhalle wird der Nobelpreisträger-Steg entstehen. © Ingenieurbüro Sabine Wiederer

Am Donnerstag, den 4. Oktober 2018 sind die Bauarbeiten für den Lindauer Nobelpreisträger-Steg fortgesetzt worden. Der neu entstehende Steg bildet künftig die zentrale Station des Lindauer Wissenspfades und ehrt die rund 400 Nobelpreisträger, die seit Gründung der Lindauer Nobelpreisträgertagungen 1951 in Lindau waren.

Weitere Informationen zum Stegbau lesen Sie in unserer Pressemitteilung.

2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

2018 Nobel Laureates Frances H. Arnold, George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed. Copyright: Nobel Media AB 2018.

On Wednesday, 3 October 2018, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2018 to Frances H. Arnold “for the directed evolution of enzymes”  and to George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter “for the phage display of peptides and antibodies”.

Find out more about the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry here.

The Power of Evolution: Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2018

Today, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the 2018 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry. Frances H. Arnold (USA) received one half of the prize “for the directed evolution of enzymes”; the other half of the prize was awarded to George P. Smith (USA) and Sir Gregory P. Winter (UK) “for the phage display of peptides and antibodies”.

2018 Nobel Laureates Frances H. Arnold, George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed. Copyright: Nobel Media AB 2018.

From the press release of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences:

“The power of evolution is revealed through the diversity of life. The 2018 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have taken control of evolution and used it for purposes that bring the greatest benefit to humankind. Enzymes produced through directed evolution are used to manufacture everything from biofuels to pharmaceuticals. Antibodies evolved using a method called phage display can combat autoimmune diseases and in some cases curemetastatic cancer.”

Read more about the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry here.

New Principle for Cancer Therapy: Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology 2018

Today, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.

2018 Nobel Laureates James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo. Ilustration: Niklas Elmehed. Copyright: Nobel Media AB 2018

From the press release of the Karolinska Institutet

“Cancer kills millions of people every year and is one of humanity’s greatest health challenges. By stimulating the inherent ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells this year’s Nobel Laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy.

James P. Allison studied a known protein that functions as a brake on the immune system. He realized the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumors. He then developed this concept into a brand new approach for treating patients.

In parallel, Tasuku Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells and, after careful exploration of its function, eventually revealed that it also operates as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action. Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer.

Allison and Honjo showed how different strategies for inhibiting the brakes on the immune system can be used in the treatment of cancer. The seminal discoveries by the two Laureates constitute a landmark in our fight against cancer.”

Read more about the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Learn more about the possibilities of immunotherapies in our topic cluster. 

The Road to a Nobel Prize

How does an economist choose their area of research? What are the influences on how they pursue their goals? What do they see as the next steps in their chosen fields? The answers to these questions will be central to the way that young economists – and indeed academics from any discipline – will take decisions in their own careers.

Three Nobel Laureates who won their prizes for separate work on contracts, incentives and organisations took part in a panel at the 6th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences. They discussed the personal academic journeys that led them to make the intellectual findings for which they were recognised – and the people and research that had influenced them.


Panel Discussion: Contracts, Incentives and Organisations duirng the 6th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences. Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Panel Discussion: Contracts, Incentives and Organisations at the Lindau Meeting. Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings


Oliver Hart, who won the 2016 prize for his work on contract theory, was motivated to look at incomplete contracts after a conversation with Sanford Grossman in which they asked why one firm would ever buy another firm rather than just trading with it. As trained microeconomic theorists, they decided that they could add to the informal existing literature. After grappling with issues such as the role of authority and the idea of requirements contracts, they realised they were thinking about it in the wrong way.

‘The penny dropped that we were thinking in complete contract terms when we realised it would be better to think about it in incomplete contracting terms,’ Hart said. ‘In complicated relationships that take place over many years, it is very hard for the parties to foresee the future and write the idealised state contingent contract.’ Hart and Grossman went on to write the highly influential paper Incomplete Contracts and the Theory of the Firm.

Bengt Holmstöm, who shared the prize with Hart in 2016, took a less direct path towards economics, gaining an undergraduate degree in mathematics at the University of Helsinki and a masters in operations research and doctorate at Stanford. While working later for a large conglomerate in Finland, he was asked to implement a corporate planning model.

‘It didn’t take before I realised that this did not look like the right thing to do’, he said. ‘That ignited my interest in incentives and provided an endless source as a sounding board – I don’t get enthusiastic about anything that does not match with the reality. If the apple falls up rather than down, then I’m not interested in that model.’

Jean Tirole, who won the prize in 2014 for his work on market power and regulation, said that he believed it was impossible to develop thoughts in a vacuum. Although he admitted he found it hard to codify his own research, he focused on three routes.

The first was intensive research on gaps that he had identified in the current theory. He mentioned his close reading of papers produced in the 1980s on principal-agent theory by Holmstrӧm – who was sat next to him on the panel. ‘It was a full tree but there were holes and we had to fill in the branches that were missing.’

The second route was to be motivated by the research of other academics, which included the work of Hart and another fellow laureate, Eric Maskin, who was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when Tirole was there as a doctoral student. Tirole went on to write a paper, Unforeseen Contingencies and. Incomplete Contracts, with Maskin who had earlier supervised his PhD.

His final route was engagement with practitioners who worked on issues relating to contracts on a daily basis and who asked Tirole questions as an expert that he found he could not answer, motivating him to do further research. ‘My research does not come in a vacuum but it comes from interactions, from being in the right place at the right time,’ he said. ‘We have to listen to people if we are going to learn about our own ignorance.’

The young economists in the packed theatre hall put a range of questions to the laureates including: whether university tenure was an optimal contract; how their subject area had evolved and future areas for research; and bank compensation in the wake of the global financial crisis. Two questioners asked the laureates about who had influenced them and what were the inconvenient questions that young scholars needed to ask.

Hart cited a number of economists including Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu, laureates of an earlier generation who gave their names to the theory of general economic equilibrium, as well as another laureate, Ronald Coase.

Holmström urged young economists to focus on finding answers to small questions that can then be expanded. ‘I have tried to answer some big questions but they have never gone anywhere,’ he joked.

Tirole struck an inspirational final note saying that the Nobel Prize had turned him into a somewhat reluctant public intellectual in his home country of France. ‘You have to help design institutions that are going to be resilient in case a bad president comes to power. Mechanism design is very important,’ he said.

‘You basically get the economic policies that you deserve and our role as economists is to try to explain in simple terms what economics is about. We will get good policies if public opinion is well informed about economics – with all its uncertainties.’



#LiNo17 Daily Recap – Friday, 30 June

The 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting ended with the Baden-Württemberg Boat Trip to Mainau Island. It was a day full of science, discussions, joy, genuine delight and even some tears. Enjoy the highlights of the last day of #LiNo17.


Video of the day:


“I felt like I had the world in my hands.” – Young scientist Hlamulo Makelane

A definite highlight of the day were the heartfelt closing remarks made in the courtyard of Mainau Castle. You can watch the entire Farewell in our Mediatheque.


Browse through our mediatheque to find all lectures, discussions and more educational videos from the Lindau Meetings.


Picture of the day:

Nobel Laureate Rudolph A. Marcus enjoying the Baden-Württemberg Boat Trip to Mainau Island whilst conversing with young scientists. 

67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting Chemistry, 25.06.2017 - 30.06.2017, Lindau, Germany, Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings Boattrip to Mainau Island

For even more pictures from the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, past and present, take a look at our Flickr account.


Blog of the day:

For Nobel Laureate Jean-Pierre Sauvage, novelty, teamwork and adventure drove advances in synthesising molecular chains and knots. Read about his work and his advice for the young scientists.


Do take a look at more of our inspring blog posts.


Tweets of the day:


Last but not least, follow us on Twitter @lindaunobel and Instagram @lindaunobel and keep an eye out for #LiNo17

This is the last daily recap of the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. The idea behind it was to bring to you the day’s highlights in a blink of an eye. We hope you enjoyed the meeting and wish you all safe travels home.