Is basic science infantile?

By | July 15, 2013

Time has an article on what happens when creative thinkers get the opportunity to set their minds free. The article begins at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and ends up as an essay on the old "rivalry" between basic and applied science. Opinions of two of the Institute's researchers are contrasted.

Norwegian mathematician Nils Baas (67) on his work on cancer classification:

I am studying this (cancer classification) out of curiosity. Treatment is a nice benefit, but it shouldn't be the drive.

Russian mathematician Vladimir Voevodsky (47) disagrees:

This kind of attitude is a manifestation of one's own infantility. He also states that he wants to do "math that is useful".

In a way, Voevodsky may have a point. Doing something out of pure curiosity and for fun, it seems kinda infantile. But this sort of infantility is actually equivalent to pure creativity. The creativity that comes from within, and that began in the infantile age and proved so effective that it prevailed all the way to adulthood. It is natural and powerful.

Some people are blessed by having plenty of this source of curiosity. They don't need anything else to justify their science. In contrast, those who are less lucky have to substitute it with something else to drive their research. It can be ideology, or some sense of a noble purpose, desire to contribute to a higher good, sense of duty and obligation, but it can also be fear (e.g. of losing a stable academic job), competition, or lust for fame. I am not sure if these drivers are more "adult" than pure curiosity.

The nice thing is that many of the different drivers may do the job and produce a good science. I know a guy whose important motivation to publish papers is an obsessive fear that his peers may think that he doesn't publish enough. And he is a respected scientist, I like his papers. Another one nourishes his science by believing that everybody else is wrong, and he wants to prove it. Sometimes he turns out to be right. A lot of my colleagues are driven by a mix of testosterone, competitive rush and ambitions. And they produce what seems like important results.

However, amongst all of the different motivations, pure curiosity stands out as the safest, simplest and most transparent one. Ideology can turn out to be a delusion, noble purpose can turn out to be more complex and ambiguous than it seemed, fear can tie up the mind, competition can lead to cheating and animosity, lust for fame corrupts, etc. But most importantly, all of these restrict one's perspective, they always somehow block (or determine) the ways that the mind dares to take. Infantile curiosity has no such side effects.

For this reason basic science is actually more precious (and fragile) than the applied one. Not only it can lead to groundbreaking results (the usual argument of its advocates) - if properly nourished, basic science can be the oasis of unrestricted, ideology-free and highly motivated thinking that is allowed to question and explore anything, even the ideologies of the government itself, the established paradigms, the established tabus, and the depths of the unknown, all out of pure curiosity and with no set boundaries. Even though it may seem infantile at first impression, cultivation of basic science is exactly the opposite of infantile - its existence is in the very foundation of any advanced, open, free, secular and democratic society.

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3 thoughts on “Is basic science infantile?

  1. Falko Buschke

    Hi Petr, I just discovered your blog.

    I too share your sentiments for the value of basic research. I wrote about here. In short, I think that basic research is important and is worth keeping but, at the same time, I easily get annoyed by people who try to "spice up their science" by giving it an applied angle. This form of false advertising is often an attempt to jump on a bandwagon of pressing public interest (think climate change, biodiversity loss etc.) in order to secure funding. It's dishonest.

    1. petrkeil Post author

      Hi Falko,
      thanks for this! I generally agree. In your post you express the sentiment that:
      "We have an obligation to be honest about our own motivations and stop over-selling our work as the panacea to some terrible poison when it clearly isn’t. Don’t lie about some indirect application to climate change/habitat fragmentation/biodiversity loss when there obviously isn’t one. If research doesn’t have any immediate utility, then be honest about it. There are NO excuses for dishonesty, even if transparency might jeopardise future research funding."
      Yes, there definitely is tons of overselling in ecological literature (the first and last sentence of nearly every published paper, including my papers). It is probably even more pronounced in grant proposals. It would be liberating to get rid of that. But is it actually possible? It is a red queen situation. You have to run (and decorate your proposals with funny exaggerations about saving the world) in order to keep up with the rest of the pack and stand still. No applied implications -> no advantage -> no money -> you are out. Vicious circle.

  2. VadimK

    Firstly, I loved this post!

    Adding to the discussion, I wonder if the necessity of constantly having to relate and argue for the applicability and "real-world importance" of basic research is a distraction which biases and constricts the range of ideas we consider in pondering questions.

    I'm curious about the extent to which a very dominant premium that seems to be placed on studies relating to "hot topics" (climate/land use change, biodiversity, etc) could bias basic research if scientists are from the start trying to vector their results towards a rather specific conclusion? Moreover, is this beneficial (i.e., those hot topics do tend to be important), or harmful (i.e., by constricting creativity and the types of research questions we are whiling to consider)?


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