WHY SUPPORT BASIC SCIENCE?
DEVELOPMENT ACTIVITIES IN THE U. S. REPRESENT A BIG ENTERPRISE, comprising
about 2.5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, according to data
compiled by the National Science Foundation.
This figure includes a significant amount of applied research and development
performed by industry or for defense-related purposes. The amount devoted
to basic knowledge-driven research is about 0.4 percent of GDP. The U.S.
federal government appropriates about $17B per year for basic research 58
percent of the total), somewhat less than the percentage in Japan or Western
Europe, according to NSF. On any scale, such large expenditures make it
entirely reasonable to ask why society should support the scientific enterprise.
The motivations for science research vary from one field to another.
Some research questions have immediate goals, clearly directed toward solving
specific problems or addressing particular conditions in society. Much medical
research, for example, focuses on finding answers to questions such as why
cancer cells develop and how to inhibit their growth. Military research
is also usually focussed, investigating for instance, the effect of strong
bursts of electromagnetic energy on missile guidance systems. Materials
science explores the properties of substances that make them useful in applications
such as TV transmission, power distribution, or computer chip manufacture.
Other sciences pursue questions more distant from current everyday concerns:
biochemists seek to understand how complex protein molecules `fold' into
their compact forms; astronomers attempt to discern whether the expanding
universe will ever stop and recollapse; and high-energy physicists probe
the forces and particles at the heart of all matter, at the smallest distance
The justification for investigating questions whose answers have ready
applications for society is straightforward. For example, we can estimate
the human and social costs of diseases to determine the price we are willing
to pay for cure or eradication. The excellent record of successes, over
time, in these directed fields is apparent to us all.
Although the justification for more basic, non-application-directed research
is harder to state, it exists nevertheless. It has three important components.
First, when we think about the reasons for pursuing basic science, we must
never underestimate the human desire to understand the world around us --
not merely to acquire better control of the world, but to satisfy our yearning
for understanding. Few of us are immune from the awe of gazing at a starry
night, wondering how these distant suns came into being, and pondering the
past and future story of the universe. Similarly, the question of what we
find when we carve observable bits of matter into increasingly smaller pieces
has been with us at least since the ancient Greeks. Asking questions like
these is at the core of being human; one need only look at the themes of
the poets, musicians and artists over the millennia to see that we are programmed
to want to understand our world and its origins as thoroughly as we can.
We can also recognize a second very important aspect of basic research:
it attracts intensely inquisitive and often unusually capable people. Such
people may sometimes be dreamers, but they are also driven to find practical
technical means to investigate the objects of their fascination. The quest
to understand some basic aspect of nature often results in the creation
of new practical and conceptual tools that didn't exist before the dreamer
began investigating the problem. The investigators themselves may be indifferent
to the applications of their tools beyond their own purposes, and sometimes
they are not well equipped to explain what these tools might mean beyond
their narrow spheres of application, but their legacy can be tremendous.
Third, we have come to understand that even though some science may seem
wholly remote from the daily needs of society, in the long term esoteric
new knowledge has the habit of re-entering the mainstream with a bang!
To take a few examples:
Quantum theory. The discovery that
all matter and energy comes in discrete bundles was at the core of forefront
research on quantum mechanics in the 1920s. This knowledge did not originally
appear to have much connection to the way things were built or used in daily
life. In time, however, the understanding of quantum mechanics allowed us
to build devices such as the transistor
and the laser. Our
present-day electronic world, with computers, communications networks, medical
technology, and space-age materials would be utterly impossible without
the quantum revolution in the understanding of matter that occurred seven
decades ago. But the payoff took time, and no one envisioned the enormous
economic and social outcome at the time of the original research.
In the late 19th century, physicists were surprised to observe that, contrary
to all everyday experience, certain materials showed no resistance to the
flow of electricity at very low temperatures. For decades, this phenomenon
remained a curiosity of interest only to research physicists. Now, however,
the actual and potential technological applications in the form of
very high magnetic fields for magnetic resonance imaging diagnostics, the
levitation of trains, and power transmission have already made a great impact
on our world -- and promise even greater impact in the near future.
Molecular manipulation. Research
on making new, very large, organic molecules was once the preserve of chemists
who were mainly interested in exploring to see what new configurations they
could construct. But as the researchers became more adept at manipulating
megamolecules, applications came into view, spawning the huge plastics and
pharmaceutical industries whose developments influence all aspects of our
Besides the sometimes far-future applications of advances in basic knowledge,
the tools used to carry out the research can themselves be found in surprising
and general applications.
All modern forms of medical imaging technologies had their beginnings
as detection devices in physics and chemistry. Many of the industrial scientists
who created such devices such as CAT
(Computer Aided Tomography) scanners were originally young scientists trained
within the basic science community.
computing, the use of many computers to attack different parts of a
problem simultaneously, was invented by scientists who needed to process
their data faster than the conventional, one-processor mode could achieve.
This computing method has transformed such diverse areas as weather forecasting
and market trend analyses and will impact the growing field of vitrual reality
Particle accelerators.The use of
particle accelerators not only for the scientific study of the collisions
that they produce but as technological tools, has become widespread. The
synchrotron radiation emitted when
charged particle beams bend has become an indispensable tool for the study
of new materials and making `pictures' of living cells. Some hospitals now even have their own
accelerators for the therapeutic treatment of otherwise untreatable tumors.
The Web. Are you reading this article
on the World Wide Web? If so, you are directly benefiting from a tool that
originated because of the need of large but far-flung scientific collaborations
in particle physics to communicate quickly and effectively, worldwide. The
developed by the European high-energy physics laboratory CERN,
has now transformed the way we find and use information, talk electronically
to our friends, and view the events of the world. It is striking that the
communications needs of a few thousand particle physicists should lead so
quickly to so large a change in the way we live.
One should never bet against the most esoteric discoveries in the laboratory
coming back to transform our society and repay the original investment many
Advances in one branch of science often stimulate fundamental advances
in another. There is good reason to maintain a broad program of basic research,
for the cross-fertilization among the many fields is huge. In exceptional
cases, breakthrough discoveries may have wide effects in many fields. More
often, however, newly developed techniques in one area find application
in another, opening doors previously wedged shut against further advancement.
The development of Magenetic Resonance Imaging MRI
(Magenetic Resonance Imaging) as a powerful diagnostic tool for non-invasive
imaging of the body is an illustrative example.
It depended on the:
discovery of the esoteric "spin"
property of the atomic nucleus in physics;
discovery by chemists that the energy
associated with the flip of this spin depends upon the chemical environment
of the nucleus;
development of powerful microprocessors
by electrical engineers in industry;
development of superconducting magnets
for particle accelerators; and
development of pattern recognition
techniques pioneered in biology and particle physics.
This weaving of basic discovery and the focussed development of technical
tools is nearly taken for granted by those of us who are scientists: Obviously,
microprocessors required the discovery of the transistor and development
of superconducting magnets required the discovery of the phenomenon itself.
By the same token, the discovery of spin required the development of high
voltage and vacuum techniques by turn-of-the-century engineers...and so
on, back and forth. This interconnectedness of science and engineering and
different sciences among themselves -- and its worldwide basis for progress
-- prompted the heads of 106 scientific, engineering and mathematics societies
to urge Congress in 1997 to provide increased support for basic research.
It should be noted that Congress has heard and largely agreed with this
point of view, giving basic science support by government a raised priority,
even in a climate of reducing other activities.
Why, then should we as a society choose to support basic, frontier research
like that done at Fermilab (a national
research laboratory of the U.S. Department
of Energy )?
First, because we expect that from
this research we will come closer to answering the fundamental questions
that have intrigued humanity for all our history. Where do we come from,
what are we made of, why is our world the way it is?
Second, because we can be confident
that, although we have little idea at present which advances from basic
research will in time come back to transform our society, we have every
historical reason to expect that the benefits will justify our investment
Finally, because participation in
basic research will benefit society by educating and training thousands
of students who will choose to enter the workforce not only in academic
research but as workers in many diverse industries.
Currently, there are more than 600 graduate students from universities
around the world who will receive their Ph.D. degrees from their work at
Fermilab. Experience shows that only about one in five will stay in basic
research. These young men and women who migrate to other fields are some
of the most precious and unique "products" of our research, paying
back in unpredictable ways. These young scientists are the messengers, the
people who carry novel and sometimes eccentric tools and ways of thinking
into society at large, and who bring them to bear on the applications that
benefit us all.
The argument for support of science is compelling. Those of us engaged
in doing research have a strong obligation to share our aspirations, achievements
-- and sometimes failures -- with our fellow citizens who support us, and
continually look for better ways to bring the benefits of science to all.