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IN MY OPINION

Fundamental research is anything but basic

We can’t apply knowledge that we don’t have. And to have knowledge, we must create, reveal or discover it.

By JULIA BOUGHNER | JUN 11 2019

A while ago, I was describing my lab’s NSERC-funded natural sciences research program to a friend and university administrator. She replied, not unkindly, “Well, that’s esoteric.” As a scientist who, depending on how my week is going, is putting either the “fun” or the “mental” in my fundamental research, I’ve struggled with the subtle but omnipresent, disquieting subtext that my research is perhaps frivolous and maybe indulgent.

In the end, I decided to embrace esoteric. But I can’t ignore the perceptions of it being frivolous or indulgent. In fact, it’s a big problem not to speak out against such charges in fundamental research.

The main reason for this subtext seems to be the lack of an obvious, predictable and rapid A-to-B application of new knowledge to problems. Incidentally, this framework also presumes that, to earn its keep, new knowledge must solve problems.

But a linear translation of knowledge-created to knowledge-applied isn’t how things work a lot of the time. Just think of the recent blue-sky science poster child, CRISPR, born of pursuing scientific curiosity (how does a bacterium’s immune system work?) that has led to revolutionary gene-editing technology. The internet, including the World Wide Web, is another example of fundamental research transmogrified into an unanticipated, massive engine of sociocultural, educational and economic transactions.

Non-linear, unpredictable, curiosity-driven research is deeply valuable. Explorers and inventors may have different aims, but both are important and complementary. Nonetheless, the discovery-based scientific community often seems to defer to political or institutional messaging that fundamental science is indulgent. Why? Who do we find ourselves catering to, against our best interests?

Perhaps scientists are spurred by feelings of shame that fundamental research doesn’t conform to corporatized university models here in Canada and abroad favouring rapidly translatable results that satisfy profit-driven ideals of efficiency and success. Or, maybe, we fear that by advocating for fundamental research, we won’t attract government subsidies or be able to justify taxpayers’ returns on investments, all within a short election cycle. Maybe there are other reasons, too.

Scientists could – and need – to do a better job of sharing with non-scientist citizens our excitement about, and belief in, the high value of our work. We would also do well to grasp that while we can expertly wield datasets to sway a colleague’s point of view, storytelling and emotional connection, not evidence, are the best tools for shifting opinions and attitudes among non-researcher neighbours, friends and families.

And if there was no fundamental research?

But, for argument’s sake, let’s pretend that fundamental research is superfluous. What would that reality look like?

First, imagine a world where new knowledge isn’t power. Or imagine a world where we already understand and can explain everything – there’s nothing new to know. On the flip side, imagine we simply accept the 2019 status quo, including preventable deaths, social injustices and environmental degradation. Or imagine a world where everything is static; for example, populations don’t move, microbes don’t evolve, and climates don’t change.

Writing from the Canadian Prairies, we’d have to also ignore that Saskatchewan’s peoples, possibilities and problems are unique; or we’d be fine with just … waiting until maybe someone, somewhere else in the world, happens to produce new insights to address our wants and needs. It’s worth noting that since geography informs scientists’ curiosity (if nothing else, just think of Charles Darwin’s epic Beagle voyage), there’d be no prairie science, no prairie questions, no prairie breakthroughs.

Then there’s the economic piece. Fundamental research is often framed as a financial drag, or an indulgence. Yet, if measures of gross domestic product make you all a-tingle, then GDP is positively, strongly and significantly linked to numbers of publications and patents. Specifically, research suggests that “higher growth countries should focus on basic research to achieve more innovativeness and to sustain competitive advantage.”

Bang-for-buck, fundamental research is high value, creating new knowledge that can be applied far beyond a single targeted problem or question. Also, fundamental research is among the most predictable, reliable and constant employment sectors because there will always be more and new knowledge to discover and things to explain. To do this work, people will need to be hired. To train these workers, jobs need to be created for mentors. To apply this new knowledge, other people must be hired to dream, design and implement technologies, solutions and policies. Institutional coercion of explorers to become translators, or vice-versa, is wasted talent, time and energy for all involved.

Supporting fundamental research is also a philosophical choice. It says a lot about who we are. Stalwart investment in fundamental research signals to the rest of the world our priorities and capabilities. It communicates that we are leaders and visionaries who contribute to humanity’s collective understanding. It shows that we are global citizens poised to collaborate and build alliances.

Specifically, investing in discovery- and people-driven research shows a government’s commitment to protect and support its citizens. Relying exclusively on industry partnerships and profit-driven research is naïve, at best, to potential conflicts of interest, such as suppressing research results that might hurt a company’s bottom line. Rather than priority-driven targeted research, independent investigator-led research is important to “promote a vibrant research ecosystem” in Canada and, surely, in other countries.

We can’t apply knowledge that we don’t have. And to have knowledge, we must create, reveal or discover it. Fundamental and applied research are two sides of the same coin. Separating them in policy, philosophy and priority is a false dichotomy. Collectively, we will break new ground faster if we embrace applied and fundamental research as each other’s muses, and champion the capacity of the esoteric to lead to the extraordinary.

Julia Boughner is an associate professor of evolutionary developmental anthropology, College of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan.

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  1. Kenneth Hughes / June 12, 2019 at 13:50

    CRISPR is but one of many examples of unforeseen results of fundamental research result with huge implications. Others include the laser (the theorist who first described workings of a laser didn’t foresee any useful application), the phonograph (Edison invented it without realizing its possible use for recording music), the discovery that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer (this came from scientists studying Venus’s atmosphere), the possibility of a nuclear winter (from scientists studying Mars), or even just Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the guy who collected flotsam washed up on beaches and ended up providing data critical to an understanding of ocean gyres. Notice how many decades are covered with just a handful of examples?

    (Paraphrasing myself from https://brushingupscience.com/2019/06/03/pure-scientific-research-pays-for-itself/)

  2. pat friese / June 17, 2019 at 00:21

    “Fundamental and applied research are two sides of the same coin. Separating them in policy, philosophy and priority is a false dichotomy.”: ” Perhaps scientists are spurred by feelings of shame that fundamental research doesn’t conform to corporatized university models here in Canada and abroad favouring rapidly translatable results that satisfy profit-driven ideals of efficiency and success.” lol, a big “perhaps” for your own false dichotomy
    this is nothing but a poor discussion of pure and applied research.

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