Chemistry Nobel laureates make a plea for basic research

W.E. Moerner: "Detecting a single molecule was thought a foolhardy waste of time"

20 November 2014

Chemistry Nobel laureates (W.E. Moerner (2014), Arieh Warshel (2013) en Roald Hoffmann (1981) visit Amsterdam to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Holland Research School of Molecular Chemistry (HRSMC). All three laureates make a plea for basic research and in doing so they are joined by Karen Maex, dean of the science faculties of UvA and VU.

According to Moerner, who will receive the Nobel prize in December, his research was not at all focused on the application for which the price was awarded this year. His method for the optical detection of one single molecule turned out to be crucial for the development of a new class of super microscopes that enable the imaging of even the tiniest details of cellular processes. This gives researchers new insights in their quest to cure cancer and other life threatening diseases.


Lecture by W.E. Moerner
Photo by Hanne Nijhuis

W.E. Moerner at the HRSMC 20th anniversary symposium. Photograph by Hanne Nijhuis.

At the time of his research, Moerner could never have envisioned such an application: " My work on the first optical detection of a single molecule in 1989 was motivated by exploring the ultimate limits to something called frequency-domain optical storage.  Many thought detecting a single molecule was not possible or worse, a foolhardy waste of time. Yet this key step stimulated us and the rest of the world to explore this new regime, and super-resolution microscopy appeared as an application 17 years later."

Moerner makes a case for funding fundamental research that has at its core learning about nature at the deepest level, whether there is a current, short-term application or not. "There has been a shift in funding in the U.S. and in other countries toward research with a short-term view, but it is clear that only with stable, long-term support for fundamental science can researchers dream about what has not yet been done and truly push back the frontiers."

"We as scientists should work harder to convince the public and our elected representatives that funding for basic research is an essential investment in a pipeline for our future."

No iPhone without semiconductors

Arieh Warshel at HRSMC 20th anniversary symposium

Arieh Warshel addressing the HRSMC audience. Photograph by Hanne Nijhuis.

Ariel Warshel, who won the Nobel prize the previous year, underpins Moerners case: "The semiconductor was not invented because one envisioned the iPhone. Similarly the discovery of the structure of DNA was not motivated by explicit attempts to cure genetic deceases but by the drive to be the first to solve a very challenging intellectual problem."

"It is important to keep in mind that almost all ( if not all) the great technological breakthrough came from curiosity  based research.Thus supporting basis research is the best way of guaranteeing  future advances in technology."

Experimental courage

Roald Hoffmann, Nobel laureate in 1981, shows a remarkable awareness of the history of Dutch scientific research. "There was a time when science in the Netherlands was identified with the technological achievements and products of Royal Shell and Royal Philips. Behind those world-class companies were decades of fundamental science, research in pure chemistry and physics, exemplified by the great achievements of Van’t Hoff, Kamerlingh Onnes, Bloembergen and many other great Dutch scientists."


Roald Hoffmann at the 20th HRSMC symposium

Roald Hoffmann during his keynote lecture. Photograph by Hanne Nijhuis.

"The industries of the future will base their products on new materials for the electronic industry, catalysts, pharmaceuticals, fibers and adhesives. These will not be found in Edisonian fashion, by trying the next chemical off the shelf, but by design, combining the power of information technologies with chemical and physical intuition, quality instrumentation, and experimental courage."

"The great scientists of the Netherlands deserve the encouragement and support of their government and your great and diverse industry."

Out-of-the-box thinking

Dean Karen Maex joins the Nobel laureates in their observations and emphasises that the level of focus in advanced research in this field of science is the molecule.

"At this scale the fundamental knowledge base becomes exchangeable between  disciplines and leads to convergence research in  chemistry, physics, biology, materials engineering, electronics, biotechnology, medicine and so forth. This  has led to a growing interdisciplinarity and a cross fertilization between the various disciplines."

Karen Maex at the 20th HRSMC symposium

Dean Karen Maex: "Real fundamental research ... is key for ground breaking innovation and for the future competitiveness of sectors and of our country". Photograph by Hanne Nijhuis.

"Applying what is already known, serves a gradual progress and leads to the expected", Maex emphasizes. "Real fundamental research leads to finding the unknown, the unexpected. As such it is key  for ground breaking innovation and  for the future competitiveness of sectors and of our country. This however does not only imply innovation in technology but in the whole process from cradle to cradle. In every step out-of-the box thinking, creativity, serendipity and crossing borders is needed.  These are all basic elements of fundamental research."


Published by  Holland Research School of Molecular Chemistry