Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Don’t Mess With Basic Science!

In this week’s NATURE Daniel Sarewitz, a well-known science policy guru, states that the rightful place of science is in service to society. While it is hard to argue against the idea that one of the main goals of research should be to benefit health care, the economy, or other aspects of societal well being, there is an unsettling underlying theme to Sarewitz’s commentary.  In this article he outlines several attempts by the federal government to more effectively harness basic research to national goals. This includes the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, the DOE’s-Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and a new National Additive Manufacturing Institute. Sarewitz contrasts these goal-oriented efforts to what he feels has been the bloated and wasteful state of basic research, especially basic biomedical research, in this country. This theme of devaluing undirected basic research has been prominent in Sarewitz’s previous writings over the last few years.

While the NATURE commentary makes many valid points, it is fundamentally flawed because it ignores one of the key aspects of science, the unpredictable ‘Black Swan’ nature of basic research. Certainly there is merit in coupling many aspects of science to societal goals and priorities. Much research is rather mundane and consists of filling in gaps in the knowledge base. Nonetheless now and then truly unique and unexpected insights emerge that change the entire scientific paradigm.  One might point to the discovery of RNA interference by biologists or of exoplanets by astronomers as contemporary examples. If much of the nation’s basic research effort is put in harness to short to medium term technological goals, will such fundamental breakthroughs continue to emerge? While much of our investment in R&D should be directed toward pragmatic goals, it will still be essential to maintain a substantial core of unfettered, undirected basic research. 

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