Why is basic research needed today? Some historic arguments.
In a first post, we presented G-Science, a coordination of the science academies of the G-7 countries, and introduced a statement on Basic research that they recently published together with seven other academies.
Today, we will see what they write about the background for their statement.
A classic quote
The first point is a very classic quote, of the well known (but perhaps not so wel read) 1945 report by the late Vannevar Bush Science, The Endless Frontier.
“Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn. New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science. Today, it is truer than ever that basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress.”
They then summarize the main ideas in this report (which was written for President F.D. Roosevelt). The technological progress (that policy makers are interested in) is based on basic and curiosity driven science, most of the time.
Seventy-five years ago, Vannevar Bush laid out the case for government support of basic research—that is, research pursued for the advancement of fundamental knowledge without preconceived application in mind. His report drew the connection between the pursuit of fundamental knowledge and technological progress, elucidated by several examples from his time—from the discovery of penicillin and use of vaccines to the development of synthetic materials and radio communications. In cases of such leaps in scientific understanding, the benefits to the global community have been enormous. Advances in biomedicine have enhanced and saved untold numbers of lives. Scientific breakthroughs have created new industries and jobs, and advances in agriculture freed billions of people from hunger.
Today need for basic sciences
The academies then give some exemples of challenges we face today, and where basic sciences are required.
The challenges of the present are daunting—including the need to address climate change and mitigate the impact of natural disasters, fight new and re-emerging agents that cause disease, address chronic health issues, provide robust technological systems and cybersecurity, reverse environmental degradation, and provide sustainable sources of energy, food, and water. Basic research is more important now than at any stage in human history, a crucial, long-term investment in the future to meet these challenges and produce game-changing ideas essential to the progress and endurance of society.