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Three winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry - W.E. Moerner (2014), Arieh Warshel (2013) and Roald Hoffmann (1981) - honoured the Holland Research School of Molecular Chemistry (HRSMC) with their presence during its twentieth anniversary celebrations in Amsterdam. In their respective presentations the three laureates showed unanimity in advocating fundamental scientific research. Karen Maex, dean of the University of Amsterdam and VU University Amsterdam science faculties endorses their views.

FNWI Chemistry Tour, Arieh Warshel (links), Roald Hoffmann
Arieh Warshel (left) en Roald Hoffmann. Photo: Hanne Nijhuis

Moerner, who is to receive the Nobel Prize in December, says that his research had certainly not been directed towards the application for which he has been awarded the prize. Moerner's method for the optical identification of a single molecule played a crucial role in the development of new super microscopes. Today molecular researchers use this method to chart the miniscule details of cellular processes, offering new leads for the prevention of cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Moerner could never have conceived that this would be possible when he came up with the idea of an application for data storage in 1989. At that time he was primarily interested in the fundamental question of whether individual molecules could even be detected. ‘Many considered it beyond the realms of possibility and viewed my research as a reckless waste of time. When it proved possible nonetheless, this gave researchers in wide-ranging fields a tremendous incentive to do something with it. Seventeen years later we were able to use super-resolution microscopy.’ 

Moerner views the fact that numerous countries nowadays mainly fund research with a predefined application on the horizon as an unwelcome development. ‘Only with stable, long-term support for fundamental research can scientists dream of doing things that have not yet been accomplished and actually push the realms of possibility.’ 

No iPhone without a semi-conductor

Arieh Warshel, who won the Nobel Prize last year, supports Moerner: ‘The semi-conductor was not discovered simply because someone had conceived an iPhone. The discovery of the structure of DNA is mainly attributable to the motivation of researchers in resolving a challenging intellectual problem rather than seeking to cure genetic disorders. Support for fundamental research represents a guarantee for technological advancement.’ 

Experimental courage

Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Prize winner in 1981, is clearly conversant with the Dutch field of science. ‘It was once synonymous with the achievements and products of companies like Shell and Philips, who had after all benefited from the decades of fundamental research in chemistry and physics previously conducted by prominent Dutch scientists, such as Van 't Hoff, Kamerlingh Onnes and others. The companies of the future will create products based on new materials. This is not simply a matter of taking chemicals off the shelf and experimenting, it is a matter of a specific design, for which chemical and physics intuition combined with experimental courage is required,’ concludes Hoffmann. ‘Scientists in the Netherlands merit encouragement and support from both the government and industry.’

Key to innovation 

Karin Maex endorses the Nobel Prize winners' observations. She underlines that the key to innovation and progress lies in the molecular scale. ‘This is precisely where the fundamental knowledge base is indispensable. At the level of molecules, we are seeing the boundaries between disciplines, such as chemistry, physics, biology, biotechnology and materials engineering, vanish and greater interdisciplinarity and cross-pollination emerge.’ Those who pursue genuine innovation aimed at bolstering the competitiveness of the industrial sectors cannot do without fundamental research, according to Maex. ‘This does not merely encompass technology but the entire supply chain, from cradle to cradle. Every step of this process requires creativity, serendipity and thinking beyond the box. These are all characteristics of fundamental science. Hence, sustainable innovation cannot be achieved without a strong basis in fundamental research.’