What We Don’t Know Can’t Help Us

Let’s talk about lasers for a minute. Aside from just being cool, it’s difficult to debate the value of laser technology in science and society. Yet the utility of a laser, and some of the theories that led to its invention, were not immediately lauded. The very first laser, developed over 50 years ago, was famously dismissed as  “a solution without a problem”. Despite initial criticism, it didn’t take long for some creative minds to find no end of problems for lasers to solve and, many Noble Prizes later, lasers are just about everywhere.

Lasers, once thought to be a useless invention, are now used in everything from life-saving medical applications to entertainment spectacles. Image: Liberty Science Center

Lasers, once thought to be a useless invention, are now used in everything from life-saving medical applications to entertainment spectacles. Image: Liberty Science Center

The story of the laser teaches an obvious lesson about how even the most useless-seeming scientific discoveries can have an unexpected impact on our lives, but the laser was still invented with at least fuzzy applications in mind. So, let’s go back even further in the history of the laser – to Einstein. It was the pure theoretical research of the likes of Max Planck and Albert Einstein that truly paved the way for the invention of the laser. But these early theories weren’t necessarily motivated by the potential for practical application. They were motivated by a desire to explain the natural world, a desire without which the laser and all other scientific advances we exploit today would not exist.

Basic vs. applied science

This leads us to an important and timely distinction in scientific research – basic versus applied science. Basic scientific research, also known as pure or fundamental research, is motivated by curiosity and the pursuit of new knowledge. Applied scientific research is motived by the need to solve a practical or immediate problem. In the case of the laser, the basic research of Einstein and others was applied to the invention of the laser, and ultimately an explosion of technological advances. But lasers are just one flashy example. The intrinsic value of other types of basic research is not always so easily defensible, especially at a time when even the most valuable applied research is playing defense.

Defending basic research can be hard in an age when even the most valuable applied research is being questioned. Photo: The Natural History Museum

Defending basic research can be hard in an age when even the most valuable applied research is being questioned. Photo: The Natural History Museum

That being the case, can we find other examples of basic science that have had an impact on our lives? Why, yes, we most certainly can.

E.O. Wilson wasn’t kidding

Famous ecologist, E.O. Wilson, may have originally been referring to insects when he said “It’s the little things that run the earth”, but that statement holds true across the kingdoms of life. Just because we don’t notice something, doesn’t mean it’s not affecting us. Case in point – the work of Penny Chisholm, recently highlighted in Science. Chisholm’s discovery of a tiny marine microbe has revealed groundbreaking insights into the regulation of our global climate, ocean food chains, and even the evolution of life.

And the Golden Goose goes to…

You might know who took home an Academy Award this year, but do you know who got the Golden Goose? The goal of the Golden Goose Awards is to “…recognize the tremendous human and economic benefits of federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact”. The 2016 Golden Goose awardees include a honeybee algorithm, insights into the sex life of the screwworm fly, and a revolutionary human health study.

Biologist Sheila Patek speaks for herself and for science

Ideally, the pursuit of new knowledge should be enough to justify basic science. Not only that, but the simple fact that applied science depends on the findings of basic science should be enough to evoke a desire to nurture scientific curiosity in its purest form. As Patek points out, if no one was curious enough to look at something as strange as a sea slug’s brain, no one would have discovered that it could help us understand our own. And the list goes on and on. But it’s not always enough. It’s true, we can’t provide funding for every investigation of curiosity science can devise – all science must be backed by merit. In the defense of basic science, what we need to effectively convey is that the potential to discover something new counts as merit. Not every discovery will turn out to be the next laser, but with each new discovery we open possibilities to apply that knowledge to improve our lives in ways we cannot possibly imagine. And imagination is the only way to get us there.

 

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