We rarely pause to consider the origins of the conveniences that surround our daily lives. Yet we increasingly rely on the fruits of decades of investment in basic condensed matter and materials research to address our day-to-day needs and wants. As an example, breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of semiconductors led to the invention of the transistor in the late 1940s, which in turn triggered the explosion in microelectronics that has resulted in computers, smartphones, and a host of other devices. Similarly, when liquid crystals were discovered at the end of the nineteenth century, they were little more than geometrically and visually interesting materials. As investment in pure science increased, what began in the post-Sputnik era as curiosity-driven research into liquid crystals grew into the $100 billion per year display industry of today.
Discoveries such as the transistor, laser, and liquid crystal display have permeated almost every aspect of our lives. However, the path that must be followed from basic discoveries such as these to applications that benefit society is often long and many times unclear. With the shortening time horizons of everyone from investors to financial analysts to developers of new products, investments in the basic research needed for future technological discoveries have nearly disappeared from the private sector.1 Meanwhile, the romantic view of a solitary inventor toiling to develop a light bulb is growing increasingly removed from reality. The materials at the forefront of discovery and their associated phenomena are becoming progressively more complex as science advances. As a result, sustained effort by many researchers covering a wide array of disciplines is needed, not only to make scientific discoveries but also to convert them into prototypes that can attract the capital needed to turn them into marketable products. This calls for significant federal investment in basic research.
Fortunately, such investment pays off handsomely. Basic research has long been recognized as an integral part of the innovation system that leads to economic growth in industrialized nations.2 Not only can basic research lead to new discoveries, but it also has the added benefit of training young scientists and engineers, many of whom later apply their knowledge and ideas to problems in industry.
Our society faces enormous challenges. We must find ways of satisfying our demand for energy without destroying the environment or risking our security. We must maintain our health as we age without destroying our economy. In this report, we present five vignettes that illustrate just a few of the many instances where recent fundamental discoveries in condensed matter and materials research are transforming current technologies to address these challenges. These discoveries have already created jobs through start-up companies or the expansion of larger ventures; they improve our lives while enhancing the economic competitiveness of our nation.