Why do basic science research?

ATLAS particle detector at CERN

Sometime during a class back in September, a student asked me, essentially, what basic science research is good for.  He may have phrased it differently, but that’s the form in which it lodged itself in my mind.  I pointed out that research aimed simply at furthering our understanding of the natural world has often resulted in technologies that have become central to our everyday lives.  A recent article by Nidhal Guessoum in Nature Middle East brought Brendan’s question back to me and reminded me that it’s a question deserving of discussion.

Nidhal Guessoum is an astrophysicist and professor of physics at the American University of Sharjah in U.A.E., and he argues that the Arab world needs to reduce its emphasis on applications of technology and give more attention to the funding of basic science research.  He begins, as I did, by pointing out the tangible benefits of basic research:

Many specific examples can be given on the direct and indirect links between basic research and subsequent practical innovations: radiation therapy, positron emission tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, DNA and genetic engineering, even “pure mathematics” and Einstein’s general relativity. The internet, we are often reminded, was conceived and developed by the physicist Tim Berners-Lee at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, the large particle-physics research center near Geneva). In fact, out of some 10,000 particle accelerators in the world today, only 100 or so are still used for (sub-)nuclear research, the rest are used for applied science, such as producing radiation and isotopes for medical therapies.

In particular, the instruments developed in order to perform basic research often end up being remarkably useful in unexpected ways.  One of the best examples of this are the atomic clocks used in GPS.  As an article on the CERN website puts it:

These systems [GPS] work by comparing time signals received from different satellites. The clocks in the satellites are special atomic clocks originally developed, without any other motivation, to do research in general relativity, and in particular to check Einstein’s prediction that clocks run differently in different gravitational fields.

One of my favorite examples of an unexpected application of basic research is the technique of optogenetics in neuroscience.  Decades ago, biologists uncovered a protein that allows certain algae to detect light and move toward it.  Recently, that protein has been co-opted by neuroscientists and is being used to activate the firing of neurons by shining light on them.  It’s an incredibly powerful technique that can help us understand the function of specific populations of neurons.  The video below, from the NPR blog post “The Benefits of ‘Pond Scum’ Explained”, has a rather nice explanation.

At the heart of it, though, there’s more to it than this.  We don’t do basic research because we believe it will lead to advances in technology.  We do it because we’re human and we have a very human desire to understand the world around us.  As Guessoum says,

Science, alongside other important human disciplines (religion, art, etc.), allows us to understand and appreciate the world that we have been placed in and entrusted with. Human history has shown that science, more than any other field, leads to a renewed and sometimes transformed understanding of our own nature and our place and role in the cosmos.

And that’s the most important reason to do basic research.

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