New Study Highlights Strong Link Between Basic Research And Inventions

Aug 14, 2017
Originally published on August 15, 2017 9:38 am
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Scientific research can seem abstract or esoteric. But with time, it may turn out to have practical value. A recent study has uncovered a strong link between basic research and inventions that can be brought to the market. NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca has more.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: What does the rideshare company Uber have to do with the research of a 19th century German mathematician named Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann? Benjamin Jones can tell you. Jones is an economist at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

BENJAMIN JONES: If you want to use Uber, you kind of need to know where you are, and they need to know how to - where to go to find you. So of course we use the Global Positioning System. We use GPS.

PALCA: The GPS satellite system calculates your position using highly accurate clocks in space and on Earth.

JONES: In order to make those clocks work, you have to take account of general relativity, i.e. Einstein.

PALCA: Now, Einstein came up with his theory of general relativity at the beginning of the 20th century, and he did it using a new kind of geometry invented by a German mathematician named Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann.

JONES: And so in a sense, that's a chain where if Riemann, you know, was essential to Einstein and Einstein is essential to making GPS satellites work and GPS satellites are essential to making Uber work, we see a long connection between what seemed to be very abstract insights in the 1850s and very practical products and services we use today.

PALCA: Jones readily admits that this is just an anecdote.

JONES: The problem with anecdotes is that you can find anecdotes on both sides. I could tell you lots of stories about scientific research that seems to have no payoff.

PALCA: So he and a colleague decided to make a more systematic study of how connected basic research was to future patented inventions. They looked at 4.8 million patents issued by the U.S. Patent Office and 32 million scientific papers. They focused on papers that had been cited by at least one other scientist.

JONES: We find that 80 percent of scientific papers that are cited can be traced forward to some future marketplace invention - 80 percent. It's a surprisingly large number. It was surprising to us.

PALCA: It's still true that you never know for sure which bit of basic research is going to lead to an invention, but Jones's research is encouraging news for people making the argument that investment in basic research pays off. The research appears in the journal Science. Joe Palca, NPR News.

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