The Value of Basic Research
People’s appreciation of game-changing new technologies frequently ignores the long, often twisting path that transforms an idea from fundamental discovery to practical application. Those who pay for the national research agenda may not always be aware of the early and fundamental work that makes today’s technologies possible. For example, it was basic research presented in a then-obscure scientific paper by Albert Einstein in 1917 that ultimately translated into the invention of laser technology four decades later. The development of similarly groundbreaking technologies that promise to transform and improve our lives hinges on our investments in fundamental, curiosity-driven research today.
But basic science has long been under fire. Between 1975 and 1987, the “Golden Fleece Award” was established and bestowed upon projects they deemed “the biggest, most ridiculous or most ironic example of government spending or waste.” Often, the “winners” were Federally funded scientific research projects taken out of context and cited without explanation.
For instance, Golden Fleece Awards were given to:
- Federal grants awarded to scientists seeking to determine why rats, monkeys, and humans clench their jaws.
- A Government study on alcohol and aggression in fish and rats.
- A Government-sponsored project to investigate the mating habits of the screwworm, an agricultural pest.
It was easy to call out these examples based on title alone. But, in an ironic (yet predictable) twist, each of these projects ultimately resulted in important and useful discoveries.
- The jaw-clenching research helped NASA and the Navy address problems associated with confining humans to small spaces for extended periods in space and underwater.
- Examining the effects of alcohol on aggression in fish and rats led to scientific insights about how alcohol affects people.
- Understanding the mating habits of the screwworm led to the ultimate eradication of the pest through the use of sterile insects, saving the U.S. cattle industry approximately $20 billion.
The heyday of the Golden Fleece Award has passed, but misunderstanding of the value of basic research and its ties to valuable applications, products, and knowledge survives today.
This is particularly true in the area of social science, where discoveries are often less tangible and developed though unexpected paths. Game theory, for example, had its roots in an analysis of gambling behaviors in 1713. Subsequent work supported by the Federal Government generated far-reaching applications that have profoundly influenced predictions about economics, human behavior, and biological systems. Basic research on game theory enabled the Federal Communications Commission to design complex auctions of the Nation’s telecommunications spectrum, netting tens of billions of dollars to the U.S. treasury.
These examples underscore one of the most exciting features of scientific research: the process of exploring the natural world in pursuit of fundamental understandings can often deliver surprising new insights. Sometimes knowledge contributes to our understanding of the world around us; other findings may lead to practical applications now, or many years in the future. One of the hallmarks of science is that the path to knowledge is often indirect, and that in addition to rigorous investigation, discovery is often shaped by serendipity, human curiosity, and sometimes even heroism.
That’s why President Obama has staunchly supported both curiosity-driven and mission-oriented research investments across his Administration, including $146 billion for R&D overall in his proposed FY 2016 Budget — an $8 billion or 6 percent increase from 2015 enacted levels. The Administration is alsospeaking out against efforts to gut funding for Earth science research and the social sciences, and is similarly opposed to placing increased administrative burdens on scientific agencies that fund the kinds of fundamental research that keeps America on the cutting-edge.
The road to many of the next great scientific or technological advances will start with basic science. I encourage you to share your favorite examples of basic research that led to unexpected insights or game changing applications on social media using #BasicResearch
Jo Handelsman is Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.