During the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of the top echelons of the business and political worlds, UG chemist Ben Feringa was given the word. In an interview broadcast live via internet, he emphasized the importance of fundamental research: ‘If you ask the right questions, you can change the future.’
In Davos, Feringa is one of the European Research Council (ERC) delegation, the organization that shares out European research funding. Feringa has twice received an ‘Advanced Grant’ from the ERC. ‘The funding is for five years, which is very important’, according to Feringa. ‘You need money for long-term investments and to build up a team.’
Fundamental research must be a bit like a ‘playground’, says Feringa. There has to be room to make errors, because you learn from them. Chance also plays a role. His light-driven nanomotor was actually a nanoswitch that continued to rotate. ‘We were working on light-operated molecular switches that were eventually intended for use in a computer that worked on light.’ But developing that first motor was a question of stamina and hard work.
Feringa pointed out that building his iconic nanocar took no less than seven years. ‘We wanted to learn how we could get a nanomachine to move.’ That was a stiff challenge, but one that led to innovations. There aren’t any applications yet, but perhaps in thirty or fifty years there will be medical nanorobots that will travel through our bodies to destroy cancer cells or repair defects.
Feringa is a strong advocate of fundamental research. Many of the most important breakthroughs started there. It took decades before LCD technology left the labs and made its way into our living rooms, and then subsequently become an unmissable part of our smartphones. ‘If you ask the right questions, you can change the future.’ He’s absolutely convinced of that. He noticed that during the World Economic Forum people were talking about the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. ‘But scientists are already busy with the fifth and sixth revolutions!’ This is why it is so important that young people are given the space to develop in research labs: ‘They must ask these questions and spend the next twenty or thirty years working on the answers.’
In addition to stressing the importance of fundamental research, Feringa is also very aware of possible applications. After gaining his PhD, he spent some years working for Shell. ‘That was a fantastic time, it was a very stimulating environment.’ It was also an introduction to the ‘real world’, where it’s all about products. ‘We also need entrepreneurs, who just like the people at Apple convert technology into a product like the iPhone. That has changed the world in just ten years’ time.’
You can see the interview in full on thet WEF website.
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