Much photonics research has a strong and clear link to applications, but it should never be forgotten that the study of light is also a fundamental science. Basic research is vital to the evolution of the field and as such needs to be supported.

Justifying 'blue sky' research in terms of direct guaranteed outcomes, such as the development of an important product technology or filing of a strategically important patent, is often hard or inappropriate. However, looking back over the short history of modern photonics, there is no doubt that such 'curiosity driven' research frequently seeds breakthroughs in innovation that ultimately turn out to have a considerable technological impact. After all, it has been said that the laser itself was 'an invention looking for an application', when it was initially demonstrated in 1960.

It is clear that basic research into the interaction of light with materials has brought great dividends. Examples that spring to mind include the study of liquid crystals and polymers, which have transformed the display industry through the creation of the LCD and more recently the organic LED. At the same time, research into the photorefractive effect and light-induced phase changes has had a significant impact on the optical-sensing and data-storage industries through the creation of fibre Bragg gratings and dense, rewritable disk-storage technologies, such as CD-RW.

Current research into quantum optics, slow light, photonic crystals, plasmonics and metamaterials also looks highly likely to make valuable contributions in the fields of information technology, sensing and imaging in the future. However, in all these cases, the actual benefits to society are uncertain at present, and the time-lag between the initial research and practical uses may be considerable. Taken in combination, these factors can present problems when it comes to justifying and securing funding.

One worry is that as a result of increasing pressures from share-holders and concerns over short-term profitability, companies will increasingly scale back or cancel their long-term blue-sky research programs and concentrate on nearer-term product-related development. Effectively this means that company Research and Development labs could have far more of a focus on development than research, with many choosing to out-source their long-term research to universities or to license interesting emerging technologies from third parties. Although near-term product development, in particular improving a device's performance or shrinking its footprint, is undoubtedly important for the next generation of products, the challenges posed are often engineering and do not lay the foundations for an innovative product technology in ten years time.

At the same time, in academic institutions there is the danger that the value of research is increasingly being judged by complex scoring systems, which try to quantify the importance of the research by its commercialization potential, or the number of patents and publications that result. The concern here is that justifying fundamental research in these terms is often difficult if not impossible. Conducting fundamental research to satisfy curiosity is important, and always has been, but this is often hard to explain in measurable terms, especially when the unexpected beneficial spin-offs and discoveries that may result cannot be foreseen.

As this month's Commentary reporting a meeting of scientists in Ireland to discuss future strategies for European research explains on page 125, perhaps a rethink is needed for science funding. They suggest that a scheme that reduces the reliance on scoring systems, milestones and deliverables that “stifle curiosity and handicap the imagination”, and instead concentrates on general recognition of “excellence” might be the answer.

The biggest fear is that fundamental research gets squeezed out from both the industrial and academic sectors and suffers as a result. Let's truly hope that this doesn't happen.