This question came up with a friend and fellow researcher recently. She had just given a public lecture on her topic of research in ecology and was asked why her work was important /relevant / useful. As researchers this is quite a recurring question from people, especially for those of us working in fundamental research. Fundamental research is usually a curiosity driven investigation; most of the time, it is motivated by a gap in knowledge about something. Quite simplistically, in opposition to fundamental research is applied research, which in theory focuses on filling a need established prior to the start of the project. More basically, fundamental research wants to elucidate “why is this phenomenon important”, whereas, applied research will focus more on “how can I use this?”. Given these descriptions, applied research seems more valuable, especially since resources and efforts are often limited—after all, applied research attempts to offer practical solutions to some of the most pressing issues, including epidemics, food shortages, pollution, etc. But, as stated in (UNESCO, 2015), “basic science and applied science are two sides of the same coin, being interconnected and interdependent”.
Unfortunately, the viewpoint that applied research is superior / more valuable than fundamental research is prevalent and quite common. As most part of scientific research is funded by governmental grants (i.e. public funds), public opinion has a very strong influence and gives great importance over the allocation of funding to and in science. As a result, when fundamental research is perceived as ineffectual and/or frivolous, this perspective influences legislators and funding agencies to reduce funding to fundamental research. As such, public funding into fundamental research around the globe has been steadily decreasing in recent years. For that reason also, it has become increasingly common for public funding bodies to ask for the immediate applied or commercial impact of fundamental research in grant applications. This pushes researchers towards more applied projects in order to receive the necessary funds to conduct their research, which is not without consequence on the ecosystem of scientific research. Indeed, by shortening the list of financially viable research topics, this system narrows the scope of research topics that can be addressed, increasing competition and reducing collaborative efforts. Which leads to a critical and key point about fundamental research: scientific breakthroughs are not made in a bottle neck, they are built on fundamental research work done by others, sometimes decades before their potential use can be anticipated.
Indeed, while the utility and relevance of fundamental discoveries are not always immediately striking and might not offer clear-cut ways to immediately solve problems, it is the bedrock for future solutions. Many of the most key advancements in research can be traced back to groundwork laid in fundamental research work decades or even centuries earlier. For instance, it is very unlikely that scientists studying why jellyfish glow in the dark in the 1960s, and later on isolating the green fluorescent protein, were thinking of medical applications. Yet this fundamental discovery and its derivatives now have numerous uses, such as tagging components in cells and tracking them, which is useful for biomedical research.
With this example I would like to illustrate that, because the understanding of ourselves and the environment we live in still remains limited, we simply cannot always grasp and predict everything we might need; fundamental research insures that we are equipped to deal with issues beyond the limits of our present-day knowledge, should they arise.
As a biologist doing fundamental research, it is not always easy to explain my work and “sell” it, as it is difficult to foresee tangible outcomes at the start or even during the course of a project. However, this does not and should not invalidate fundamental research work. At the risk of sounding a bit idealistic, my point here would be that, as researchers doing basic research, instead of trying to show the immediate impact of our work, our efforts should be directed towards making the general public, but also the funding bodies, have a realistic understanding of the time frame and the value for basic research. Make the case that investment approaches should not focus only on research which has a good prospect of being useful and provide quick returns; but rather cast a wider net by providing stable funding to a wide variety of projects. And finally, whenever possible, to continually show and remind that, beyond what it might eventually produce, science and research have self-value stemming simply from yielding knowledge itself, and should not be seen as a commodity driven by criterion of efficiency and practical utility aimed for commercialization.
TCSM Collegium Researcher
Ecology and Evolution Biology