As scientists, we are often asked: “why should we fund this research when it doesn’t seem to have any applications?”
It is not recently that people have started asking this. Even Michael Faraday, one of the greatest physicists who pioneered the field of electricity, magnetism and electrochemistry, was once asked, “what good is electricity?”. He answered, “I don’t know yet, but some day, you will tax it.”
Today, we cannot imagine a world without electricity.
Scientific research, often, is just like that: at the time of discovery, we cannot fathom its utility, and it can take decades for applications to materialize. Basic research (also called “pure science”) seeks to understand how the natural world works, with no targeted applications or profit motivations. However, once we figure out a new discovery, it opens up a myriad of new applications which revolutionise the world. Many modern comforts and benefits which we enjoy today are because of the basic research carried out in the last few decades and centuries.
X-rays and radioactivity, serendipitous discoveries in physics labs of the late 19th century, have now become essential tools for medical diagnosis and treatment. Particle physics has had a hand in many facets of modern life, from the development of the World Wide Web, the life-saving MRI and PET scan techniques, and dozens of other applications leading to furniture, diapers and even better security. Astronomical imaging and data analysis techniques have found uses in medical imaging. Telescope-grade CCDs are helping in better, efficient biopsies.
Apart from these incidental spinoffs, scientific developments have led to radical, novel technologies. The GPS technology that underlies all modern transportation systems works because of our understanding of Einstein’s Special and General Theory of Relativity, seemingly abstract mathematical theories with no apparent consequences for everyday life. Advances in atomic physics have given us nuclear power, transistors and modern computers. Exploration of condensed matter physics have uncovered superconductivity and superfluidity, which have given us the highly efficient MagLev trains, better motors, and many other applications we do not even think of. Nuclear fusion, for which technology is currently being developed, has the potential to solve the energy needs of humanity for a long time.
What happens between the first discovery and the eventual payoff can be very complicated. People think research is about finding the best way to reach some destination (application). That may be true of applied sciences and engineering R&D, but fundamental research is like waking up in the darkness, not knowing your surroundings and just stumbling around, trying to understand what’s around us. We don’t know what we might find and what it will eventually be useful for.
Today, we can watch videos on our phones while going to work because astronomers wanted to understand the spectrum of light coming from the Sun. What they found led to the discarding of old theories of atoms and radiation, development of the quantum theory and modern atomic physics with Bohr’s model, and beyond. This understanding of physics of the quantum scales allowed for the development of semiconductors, integrated chips, and eventually, modern electronics.
The people involved in these discoveries could not have imagined what applications the discovery would lead to. Nor was there an imminent need of laptops and tablets at that time. It is difficult to estimate at early stages which discoveries would lead to useful technologies, and which theories may be duds. However, we know that science is always profitable and publicly funded basic research more than pays for itself.
You don’t get an LED bulb by the incremental development of a candle. Someone has to discover an electron.
However, the fact is that although fundamental research leads to many benefits, the profits rarely make their way back to the laboratories. Private companies are not eager to invest in basic research as it doesn’t provide immediate dividends. To continue enjoying the fruits of science, we taxpayers must fund scientific research. India particularly lags in funding as well as the number of scientists per capita. If India wants to be a global or even a regional leader, it has to be a trailblazer in research and innovation and cannot risk playing catch-up.
R&D spending by country in 2011 by % of GDP and % of population who are scientists and engineers. The size of the circles shows the country’s total R&D spending. Credit: The Battelle Memorial Institute R&D magazine (December 2011)
Applicability-driven thinking assumes that fundamental research is simply a tool for developing new technologies. Conducting basic research also helps in creating new instrumentation and methodologies, increasing the capacity for scientific and technological problem-solving, training new workforce in critical thinking, and inspiring next generations. However, these are not the only, or even the main reasons, for carrying out basic research.
We are a curious species. Since our ancestors left the trees, we have wondered about our environment, nature, and the world we live in. We have asked questions about the Universe, the meaning of life, what are things made of, and many more. Fundamental research gives us a concrete way of inspecting some of these philosophical questions. As children, we have an innate curiosity about everything, which is often extinguished by adulthood. In many ways, science is like art, music and poetry. Engaging with science imparts an experience akin to enjoying a piece of art. Scientific images, from bacteria to galaxies, give a glimpse of the wonders of the Universe, and open up more mysteries than we can study in a lifetime. The Hubble Ultra Deep Field images, for example, have had a profound effect on our relationship with the Cosmos.
That’s what makes basic research fascinating: to explore something, not because we are trying to get some profit out of it, but out of sheer curiosity. And that’s what makes us human.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.