Risky, fundamental research as the foundation of discovery and innovation


Professor Alice GastImperial must have the courage to take academic risk and pursue curiosity-driven research before knowing whether funding or acclaim will follow, argues Professor Gast, noting that “it is those new discoveries and unexpected findings that can have the most profound impact”.

“We must continue to pursue excellent research that addresses the problems we know and we must also continue to explore new ideas with unknown benefits” she adds.

Illustrating the impact of fundamental research, Professor Gast highlights the work of eminent Imperial theoretical physicist Professor Sir John Pendry, whose research into the interaction of light with metallic systems led to the development of metamaterials with capabilities such as creating perfect lenses and rendering objects invisible.

Professor Gast writes: “Sir John said to me that while he is a theoretical physicist, he has always had an eye toward the practical and useful. His work has been fundamental, answered basic questions and also had relevance to applications. As Sir John’s research reminds us, we need to support both small projects and large ones and we need to have patience when looking for impact.”

It is those new discoveries and unexpected findings that can have the most profound impact

– Professor Alice P. Gast, President

Professor Gast refers to the College’s recently published Strategy 2015 – 2020, in which Imperial committed to acting courageously and innovatively when pursuing new opportunities, and taking risks to sustain excellence in research and education.

Imperial will do this by both by articulating the impact of fundamental research to external funders, and by investing in such lines of enquiry ourselves, she writes.

Earlier this week the College announced a new seed-funding scheme in partnership with MIT to  kick-start early-stage, risky and blue skies research ideas that might not otherwise be pursued.

Read the Autumn Letter in full