In Defense of Basic Science

Watch this.

Much of this fantastic research has been done by an alumna from my department, Dr. Patricia Brennan. Yesterday, as a culminating event of our department’s 50th anniversary weekend, she led a special discussion in defense of basic science. Her original papers on the topic can be found here and here.

In case you missed the ruckus last year, Brennan’s research became a personal target by the media for what some argued is “extraneous” scientific research that is a waste of taxpayer funding. This experience has served as an impetus for her to promote science and to educate others on how the scientific process and its funding work. It is nothing less than inspiring.

Listen: when most people think about science and imagine labs and research, they imagine work that is being done with a known purpose that will directly benefit society. A device that makes older people hear better. A drug that helps reduce migraine headaches. But not all research is meant to do this – this is at the heart of what defines applied research. Brennan’s work, my work, and the work of my colleagues are not applied but rather basic research. Basic research is at its core fundamentally different in that it purely exists for the purpose of discovery.

One of the most salient messages in Brennan’s presentation is that while not all basic science will lead to an application, all applied science is derived from basic science. In other words, all of these applied products that are meant to improve society were based on knowledge that was gained through foundational basic research. The thing is, as Brennan cleverly points out, going from basic to applied is not a linear process. No one doing discovery science has in mind a use for the knowledge they are creating. Rather, there is a vast network of knowledge that can lead to unanticipated connections, unpredictable results. This is why casting as wide a net as possible for research is necessary. You just never know what may be discovered.

Brennan’s efforts in the realm of science education and advocacy unfortunately do not go a long way in academia, despite it being an extremely important cause that impacts us all. A heartfelt thanks to her for this altruistic act – for speaking up and for inspiring us to do so as well. Let our voices be heard.

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