In these tight budgetary times, the question of whether the nation is benefiting from federal spending on basic research is becoming increasingly important. The amount spent by the federal government for basic research in a given year is approximately $40 billion, slightly more than 1 percent of the total federal budget.28 Of this, a small fraction is used to support condensed matter and materials research, the subject of this report.
The examples in this report illustrate how advances in basic research lead to tangible products that benefit not only our economy but also our health, the environment, and quality of life. Moreover, these examples represent only a handful of the many recent discoveries in condensed matter and materials research that have affected our lives or that hold considerable commercial promise. From gecko-inspired adhesives based on carbon nanotubes that do not use any liquid glue, to rare earth magnets used in earbuds and the electric motors of hybrid cars, these discoveries have added to the economic strength of our nation by generating new jobs and creating new products. They also help our economy in less direct ways: As mentioned in the first example of this report, $30 billion per year in power savings alone are estimated to flow from advances in solid state lighting by 2030, a more than fair return on our nation’s investments in that area.
It is worth noting that most federal grant money is spent on supporting graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, while most of the remainder is spent on scientific equipment. As a result, even money spent on research that does not lead to a useful application is not wasted—it is used to train the future scientific and engineering workforce or to purchase equipment made by high technology companies.
The path from basic research in condensed matter and materials research to new product is often obvious only in retrospect. For example, it might seem frivolous to study how light flickers when bubbles move around in shaving cream or particles move in a colloidal suspension like paint. These optics discoveries from the 1990s, however, have led to new noninvasive and cheap medical devices, now being tested in clinical trials, for monitoring blood flow in stroke patients as they lie in their beds.
It is difficult to predict the time it takes to move from fundamental discovery to indispensable product. Liquid crystals were first discovered in 1888 but did not become ubiquitous in liquid crystal displays until the 1990s. The first LED was made in 1927 but LEDs did not see widespread use as indicator lights until the 1970s and are only now entering our homes as lighting sources. On the other hand, the phenomenon of giant magnetoresistance, the fourth example in this report, was commercialized within 10 years of its discovery in 1988. By now, it forms the basis for the market in computer disk drives and Internet mass storage, a market amounting to many tens of billions of dollars. Even a 10-year path from initial discovery to final product is too long, however, for almost all businesses, especially when the nature of the eventual product is not obvious at the outset. This is why federal funding is essential, particularly in light of the disappearance of almost all basic research in industrial laboratories.29
The total amount contributed by condensed matter and materials research to the U.S. economy has not been estimated. But it is clear that the impact is far-reaching, and that these benefits are magnified enormously when discoveries are made in the United States and commercialized here. Federal investment in scientific research in condensed matter and materials research not only pays for itself manyfold but is vitally important in order for our country to maintain its economic leadership of the world.