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Fundamental Sciences / Blue-Skies Research

Credit: ‘Danxia Landform of a red bed characterised by steep cliffs’ by Joel Gill, King's College London, UK (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu).

Introduction:

Fundamental, or blue-skies science, describes research that is driven by a desire to further our scientific understanding, without necessarily considering specific real-world applications. They play an important role in increasing public interest in science and technology, perhaps even more so than some applied scientific research topics. Notable examples are the big bang theory, ancient fossils, the Higgs Boson particle, and space exploration.

The EGU encompasses a broad range of fundamental Earth and space sciences. These include: inner Earth dynamics, Earth evolution, plate tectonics, theoretical geochemistry, palaeontology, and planetary analyses.

Blue-sky research has led to numerous applications resulting from serendipitous discoveries throughout the research process. These spin-off discoveries can be significant and have major implications for future research and innovation. For example, the European Space Agency has a portfolio of some 450 inventions, covering areas such as optics, robotics and electrical power and propulsion, many of which have found applications in fields outside space science.

The same applies in the Earth sciences: fundamental geomorphological or volcanological research helps to predict landslides and volcanic eruptions, or mitigate their impacts; study of past climate helps anticipate the effects of global warming; techniques developed during blue-sky geochemical or geophysical research finds applications in mineral exploration; landscape research, and the processes that shape them, has led to a greater understanding of our living environment, allowing us to safeguard and manage natural risks more effectively; plate tectonics research is helping to increase our understanding of earthquake and volcanic hazards in densely populated coastal regions.

Current EU Policy:

The EU has various policies for science research, which include apportionment of science funding to the Horizon 2020 scheme. As part of H2020, the European Research Council (ERC) is allocated a budget of €13.1 billion (H2020’s total budget is €77 billion) to support “frontier research, cross disciplinary proposals and pioneering ideas in new and emerging fields which introduce unconventional and innovative approaches”. Funds are available to scientists at all stages of their career. If any commercial or societal applications from blue-skies research arise, an additional ‘proof of concept’ grant of up to €150,000 (per grant) can be applied for.

Other EU policies related to the fundamental Earth sciences are often connected to areas with specific applications. For example, as a result from geomorphic processes research, the EU Water Framework Directive requires river bedload dynamics to be taken into account when constructing or restoring streams. Additionally, as a result of fundamental Earth structure and tectonic research, the EC’s Directive on Carbon Capture and Sequestration states that their geological characteristics of potential storage site should be taken into account to ensure no significant risk of leakage.

Future Challenges:

Fundamental science research plays a key role is achieving the EU’s goal of ensuring that Europe remains at the forefront of new discoveries and challenging projects, as well as achieving a better understanding of fundamental questions.

As a shift towards impact-based scientific funding occurs, a critical challenge facing the fundamental sciences is securing funding for such research. Public sector funding schemes (including the ERC) now require assessments of potential impacts as a part of the evaluation process. Reduced budgets resulting from the economic down-turn has contributed to this policy change. Not all scientific discovery can be pre-emptively or immediately quantified, thus policies to ensure the continuation of blue-skies sciences need to be enforced.

EGU Fundamental / Blue-Sky research areas:

Many division within the EGU involve fundamental research topics. The major subject areas are listed below but more information can be found on the Scientific Divisions and Division Presidents webpage.

  • Earth Evolution (development of planet Earth from formation to the present day)
  • Earth Magnetism (generation of Earth’s magnetic field and it’s record in volcanic rocks through time)
  • Geodesy (the Earth’s geometric shape, its orientation in space, and its gravitational field)
  • Geodynamics (relationships between mantle convection and plate tectonics)
  • Geomorphology (landscape evolution and interaction between tectonics, erosion and climate)
  • Palaeontology (fossils)
  • Planetary and Solar System Sciences
  • Stratigraphy & Sedimentology (record of Earth history in sedimentary rock layers)
  • Tectonics and Structural Geology (the formation and deformation of three-dimensional rock distributions over time)

Recent EGU papers:

Sources:

  1. http://scienceogram.org/in-depth/blue-skies-research
  2. http://marcusventures.com/notebook/blue-skies-research-is-essential
  3. http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Engineering_Technology/TTP2/Highlights/Space_inventions_for_free
  4. http://cache.media.education.gouv.fr/file/2014-ERC/28/8/ERC_Press_Release_2014_Starting_Grant_call_results_FINAL_377288.pdf
  5. http://horizon2020projects.com/es-european-research-council/eu-funding-helps-blue-sky-research-meet-the-market/
  6. https://www.siliconrepublic.com/innovation/2014/11/18/dont-neglect-blue-skies-research-erc-president
  7. https://erc.europa.eu/
  8. http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:32009L0031

With special thanks to Nick Arndt, Professor of Professor Geology at the Université Joseph Fourier, and Susanne Buiter, Senior Researcher in Geodynamics at the Geological Survey of Norway, for helping to draft this webpage.

If you have a comment or suggestion, or if you would like more information please email policy@egu.eu.

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