Laurels for the hardy

November 22, 1996

Plaudits are being heaped on Harry Kroto as Britain's first science Nobel laureate in a decade. He just hopes that his new-found prominence will help heap better funds on the UK's basic science too. Graham Lawton talksto him.

Harry Kroto admits that he is tired. Since winning the Nobel prize for chemistry last month his life, already over-full, has become clogged up with new commitments. One thing that the 57-year-old Sussex University professor has had enough of is telling the story of the 20 years' work surrounding the serendipitous discovery in 1985 that won him the prize.

In the mid-1970s radio astronomers discovered clouds of large carbon molecules in space. The cosmic molecules intrigued Kroto. He and his co-prize winners, professors Richard Smalley and Robert Curl of Rice University in Texas, tried to simulate the conditions under which these molecules may have been formed. They zapped pieces of graphite with a laser beam. What they produced was an unknown form of carbon.

Buckminsterfullerenes - buckyballs for short - are spherical molecules made up of 60 carbon atoms. The name is derived from their resemblance to the geodesic domes of American architect R. Buckminster Fuller. A buckyball is shaped like a soccer ball, made up of an interlocking pattern of hexagons and pentagons.

Carbon is one of the best studied chemical elements so the discovery of an unknown molecular form was remarkable. Buckyballs created a whole new area of organic chemistry and have an astonishing range of potential applications.

Superconductors, molecular-scale electronic components, catalysts, rocket propellant, Aids therapies, enhanced lubricants and molecular machines have all been mooted. But Kroto does not concern himself with immediately foreseeable practical uses. He is curiosity driven. To Kroto, buckyballs speak the language of a deeper understanding of nature from which major unexpected applications will inevitably ensue in the 21st century.

Kroto has a deep commitment to pursuing science for the sake of science. He intends to continue studying the properties of buckyballs whatever their practical uses. "It is not my role to second guess where carbon-60 science will be in the 21st century," he says. "I'm just fascinated by buckyballs. There will be interesting spin-offs, but what they will be is unpredictable."

Winning the Nobel prize gave Kroto an opportunity to spring to the defence of the kind of fundamental research he practises. The announcement came hours after he learnt that an application for a research grant was most unlikely to be funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council even though it obtained a very high assessment. The coincidence produced a flood of media coverage of Kroto's views on the state of science funding in the United Kingdom.

Kroto says that he was not particularly comfortable with the timing of the reports. "People are over-focusing on it. This should be a happy time for me and for Sussex University," he says. But that does not detract from the fact that he has something important to say. He believes that fundamental science - that is, research without direct industrial application or obvious commercial benefits - is in danger of collapse in the UK.

He approaches the subject with caution, saying that he feels he has been misrepresented. One thing he wants to clear up is that he has not called for public spending on science to be increased. The size of the cake is not the issue. It is how it is divided up that worries him. The slice given to applied research is already too big, is still growing and is endangering the existence of basic science in the UK.

The essence of Kroto's argument is that there is a threshold level below which basic science becomes unsustainable. He does not claim to know exactly what that threshold is but he fears it may already have been reached. "Fundamental science has been squeezed. If a certain level of support is not there then the community will fold."

He is horrified by a situation where understanding the universe takes second place to balancing the books, especially given that basic research is relatively cheap. "For every Pounds 1 of funding for research it takes Pounds 10 for development and maybe Pounds 100 to bring it to the market. In those terms, funding the initial research is chickenfeed," he says. It is perhaps because there is such intense speculation about the potential uses of Kroto's serendipitous discovery that he is such an outspoken defender of fundamental science. Had an adequate level of funding not been available at the time of the discovery then buckyballs might still have been spacedust.

Despite the possibility of making a link between the UK's recent dearth of Nobel science prizes and the paucity of funding, Kroto deflects questions about the fact that he is the first Briton this decade to win the Nobel prize for science. The international collaborative, multidisciplinary nature of modern science makes a mockery of trying to categorise its practitioners by nationality. "This nationalistic thing is a nonsense," he says.

The Nobel prize brings with it a reward of $1.2 million which Kroto will share with his collaborators. It will enable him to pursue a project related to his defence of science. He helps to run the Vega Science Trust, an organisation that makes science films for television and some of the prize money will be pumped in to that.

"I'm keen to ensure that the trust becomes a medium through which the science community can make its views heard. One of my aims is to get more real science on TV. I'd like to see an unemotional, critical, analytical debate of the issues that are important for the 21st century. 20th century culture is basically science. It is going to be even more so in the 21st."

Professor Kroto is rightly very proud to have won the Nobel prize. Asked how it will change his life, he says that it will just make a busy man even busier. He hopes it also puts him in a stronger position to continue his defence of basic research. "I have always been a spokesman," he says. "People just seem to be listening to me more now."

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