Some developments about why we need basic sciences to achieve the SDGs.
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.
Then we read about the background for their statement.
Today, let’s read, with some short comments, the part entitled Why basic Research?
First, and again, there is no opposition between basic and applied science: if we want to be able tu cure illnesses for instance, we need basic biology insights. This statement probably has been discussed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the latter is a sad and perfect exemple of this. The virus has been known for no more than six months now, and biologists are already testing vaccines!
It is a paradox of science that the road to revolutionary breakthrough is often an indirect, inquiry-driven approach that yields increased understanding of the natural world and ourselves, and enables transformative discoveries for real-world challenges. For example, cancer could not seriously be addressed before fundamental breakthroughs were made in genetics and molecular biology.
Basic sciences and inequalities
SDG 10 is: Reduced inequalities. As we already wrote elsewhere, and certainly will write again, it is one of the most fundamental SDG. Even though it is not a SDG where we can easily see how science can contribute, it can. Moreover, science should be a field where stakeholders look for a reduction of all inequalities.
Basic research across disciplines is necessary for responding to our common challenges. Human activity has a large impact on the planet, its resources and its climate, and accelerating technological developments provide unanticipated social and ethical implications. These challenges inequitably affect the most vulnerable populations in society. Thus, it is essential to understand human decisions, behavior, culture, political processes, migration, and conflict. These questions can be addressed by basic research in fields including engineering, social sciences, and humanities. Science is intrinsically an international endeavor beyond national borders and cultures, and its benefits should be distributed equitably and globally. It can contribute to cross-cultural dialogues, international understanding, and to peace.
There is also a virtuous circle from basic research to applications and back to basic research. And it is the same with training and education.
Basic research is an essential complement to mission oriented research and development, which target specific problems or commercial objectives. Applied activities supply advanced tools needed for basic research, and those tools provide other direct benefits to society. Young scientists and scholars are drawn to the deep intellectual challenges of inquiry-driven basic research and are trained in, or create, new questions and ways of thinking. As these skills are applied to societal priorities, they can have transformative effects, enabling the growth of R&D-intensive industries and formation of start-ups.
100% rate of return
And of course, when we come to the money question, it is always important to remind that:
- the rate of return of basic sciences for society is really high (they could have mentioned that big tech companies invest in basic sciences as well, that’s not pure philanthropy);
- for this rate to be the hisghest, the effort must be sustained on the long term.
While the rate of return on investments in basic research is difficult to estimate, historical experience and specific examples indicate that it is very high. Economists have estimated the social rate of return for all research and development investments to range up to as much as 100 percent. Continued contribution of basic research to global well-being depends on adequate, steady, long-term public funding. Public funding promotes the scientific values of objectivity, honesty, fairness, and accountability, thereby fostering science of the highest quality, rigor, and transparency.