Curiosity-Driven Basic Research
On the heels of infrastructure week final month, discussion of air traffic control, roads, and bridges is still fresh in many people’s minds. However, notably absent from any infrastructure discussion has been mention of knowledge, science and technology, and plans for fostering these critical — yet crumbling —aspects of our society which possess been whole but left behind current political conversation.
Author and professor Robbert Dijkgraaf is working to right this potentially fatal oversight by reminding us that investment in “curiosity-driven basic research” is the bedrock of not only physical infrastructure, but of our knowledge infrastructure as well. It is this basic research that leads to profound discoveries in health and medicine, technology, and science.
An initial federal investment in research and development (R&D) support is fundamental — and is directly traceable— to many technological advances that possess proven invaluable to life in our country nowadays. Things like smartphones, GPS, and the Internet, to name a few. A single National Science Foundation investment of $4.5-million made the Google search algorithm possible—and that investment may be one of history’s wisest, whether you’re basing value on returns.
Crumbling Knowledge Infrastructure
Our knowledge infrastructure, Dijkgraaf points out, needs instant attention. He is joined in this belief by scientists throughout the nation, particularly in the wake of the recent proposed budgets slashing investment in research. He is also joined by teachers, students, and everyday people who see the value of curiosity-driven basic research in their lives. Many of them possess even taken to the streets in hopes of actively defending it.
It’s easy to understand why they are worried: in recent decades, the percentage of GDP in private and public support spent on basic research has declined dramatically. The U.S. federal budget for R&D reached a high of 1.92 percent of the GDP in 1964. nowadays, it accounts for less than 0.8 percent, despite our country ostensibly having transitioned into the knowledge economy along with the rest of the world. fresh, urgent challenges posed by climate change, food insecurity, water quality issues, and epidemics of disease and violence whole demand innovative responses — yet the investment isn’t there, and hasn’t been for generations.
The issue here is no mere mental exercise. It is rife with practical consequences. “Basic research not only radically alters our deep understanding of the world, it also leads to fresh tools and techniques that spread throughout society. . .,” Dijkgraaf writes in Scientific American. “No one can exclusively capture its rewards—it is a truly public sterling.” The inconvenience is that we are living in a time of disputed truths and disagreement approximately what constitutes public sterling. This setting makes investment into basic research even more difficult to champion, because there is no clear A and B directional input and outcome to point to.
Innovation Flowers — When Seeded
However, many of the most staggering, world-changing innovations of our time possess reach not from smaller, linear progressions in directed research, but from the unexpected outcomes of more biological basic research. The imagination, creativity, and the broad range of the human intellect are whole key to innovation. Yet placing too many constraints upon such research stifles these core strengths, and in the halt dilutes the fruits of our labors. There is no question that investments must be wise, and at times circumspect. But refusing to invest into our own collective human future can hardly be seen as wise under any circumstances.
We already know that failure doesn’t yield practical benefits, even in the short term. We possess indeniable proof: we know from experience what happens when the federal government invests in basic research. Discoveries like the laser and vaccines improve our safety, health, and quality of life. Jobs are created in science and technology industries, as well as indirectly in other industries as innovations create fresh lines of work. In this way, American industry booms and we remain competitive. Most of the fastest growing fields nowadays — such as the renewable energy industry — are thriving thanks to investment into basic research.
As we invest in basic research and strengthen our mental infrastructure, we also enhance our national security. We learn to retain soldiers and civilians alike safer, wherever they are, and we improve our ability to detect threats before they occur. We nurture the next generation of STEM professionals, and in the process our local communities thrive. We benefit from the discoveries we produce, and we bring them to the rest of the world as an innovation leader, which, by the way, keeps us competitive on the global stage.
In this time of “alternative facts” and science denial, we must invest in our own knowledge base and future before it is too late.
“It is human to focus on necessities in times of stress. But investing in basic research, just like saving for retirement, is a prerequisite for ensuring welfare, innovation and societal progress,” Dijkgraaf cautions. “Long-term investments in basic research are crucial and lead to an even higher goal: the global benefits of embracing the scientific culture of accuracy, truth seeking, critical questioning and dialogue, healthy skepticism, respect for facts and uncertainties, and wonder at the richness of nature and the human spirit.”