On the value of fundamental scientific research

Jeremy Fox over at the Oikos Blog has written an excellent piece explaining why fundamental, basic science, research is worth investing in, even when time and resources are limited. His central points include:

  • Fundamental research is where a lot of our methodological advances come from.
  • Fundamental research provides generally-applicable insights.
  • Current applied research often relies on past fundamental research.
  • Fundamental research often is relevant to the solution of many different problems, but in diffuse and indirect ways.
  • Fundamental research lets us address newly-relevant issues.
  • Fundamental research alerts us to relevant questions and possibilities we didn’t recognize as relevant.
  • Fundamental research suggests novel solutions to practical problems.
  • The only way to train fundamental researchers is to fund fundamental research.

I don’t have a lot to add to what Jeremy has already said, except that I strongly agree with the points that he has made and think that in an era where much of ecology has direct applications to things like global change we need to guard against the temptation to justify all of our research based on its applications.

When I think about the value of fundamental research I always recall a scene from an early season of The West Wing where a politician (SAM) and a scientist (MILLGATE) are discussing how to explain the importance of something akin to the Large Hadron Collider. It loses a little something as a script (complements of Unofficial West Wing Transcript Archive), but nonetheless:

SAM
What is it?

MILLGATE
It’s a machine that reveals the origin of matter… By smashing protons together at very high speeds and at very high temperatures, we can recreate the Big Bang in a laboratory setting, creating the kinds of particles that only existed in the first trillionth of a second after the universe was created.

SAM
Okay, terrific. I understand that. What kind of practical applications does it have?

MILLGATE
None at all.

SAM
You’re not in any way a helpful person.

MILLGATE
Don’t have to be. I have tenure.

SAM
Doctor.

MILLGATE
There are no practical applications, Sam. Anybody who says different is lying.

ENLOW
If only we could only say what benefit this thing has, but no one’s been able to do that.

MILLGATE
That’s because great achievement has no road map. The X-ray’s pretty good. So is penicillin. Neither were discovered with a practical objective in mind. I mean, when the electron was discovered in 1897, it was useless. And now, we have an entire world run by electronics. Haydn and Mozart never studied the classics. They couldn’t. They invented them.

SAM
Discovery.

MILLGATE
What?

SAM
That’s the thing that you were… Discovery is what. That’s what this is used for. It’s for discovery.

The episode is “Dead Irish Writers” and I’d highly recommend watching the whole thing if you want to feel inspired about doing fundamental research.

4 Comments on “On the value of fundamental scientific research

  1. Reminds me of another transcript (no actors this time), speaking of the Tevatron at Fermi National Laboratory:

    “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/2011/09/23/protons-and-pistols-remembering-robert-wilson/

  2. That’s a great quote Brady! Thanks for sharing.

    Jeremy – always a pleasure. Keep writing those great posts.

  3. Pingback: On science for science’s sake « Oikos Blog

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