A Case for Curiosity and Surprise in Science

After a yr of putting up with boundaries imposed by the pandemic, scientists have good motive to welcome the Biden administration’s first funds request, which incorporates vital will increase in funding for expertise and innovation. Scientific progress requires this funding — certainly, it requires funding in the whole spectrum of discovery. We want use-inspired analysis, utilized analysis and analysis that may flip summary outcomes into concrete options.

To make use of a manufacturing unit analogy, each place alongside the meeting line must be operational and reliable. However, as a scientist and engineer, I argue that public investments at first of the spectrum of discovery — fundamental curiosity-driven analysis — ought to outpace the funding on the finish, discovering expertise options.


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The significance of curiosity-driven analysis can’t be overstated. The speedy growth of the COVID-19 vaccines, for example, arose from decades-long curiosity-driven analysis in cell biology. As a researcher who research fluid circulation, I do know that solutions to fluid mechanics questions posed 100 years in the past — about how air swirls, how water strikes and swimming pools or how blood flows — have enabled us to invent airplanes, think about ocean wave vitality extraction and enhance drug supply. Actually, all innovations, from cell telephones to photo voltaic panels, from hair dryers to wind generators, are the offspring of curiosity-driven analysis of the previous. 

Regardless of its significance, funding sources for fundamental analysis are much less various in comparison with funding for expertise options. That is, partially, as a result of non-public business, which is commonly motivated by short-term income, is unlikely to spend money on curiosity-driven analysis. As a substitute, scientists who’re keen to dedicate their time to questions that won’t repay for many years rely nearly totally on public funding. 

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Definitely, not each fundamental analysis mission will, within the quick time period, result in a breakthrough technological answer. And that’s exactly the explanation why we should always make investments closely in fundamental analysis upfront, to verify we have now loads of uncooked supplies at hand after we seek for expertise options. Funding in expertise and innovation can then be extra selective, with metrics requiring a transparent return on funding. We seed liberally and water selectively.

Nevertheless, the present funds request privileges funding towards expertise. To make certain, it features a 20% increase to the funds of the Nationwide Science Basis (NSF), bringing it to $10.2 billion. A lot of this funding will go towards funding fundamental curiosity-driven analysis. However the funds request additionally requires the creation of a brand new directorate inside the NSF for expertise and innovation, which might obtain $50 billion — 5 instances the NSF science funds — as a part of President Biden’s infrastructure proposal. These funds could be used to show new scientific insights into expertise options. 

Indisputably, these investments are necessary. But when we make investments solely in efforts that result in recognized desired outcomes, we will likely be sure by our creativeness of what’s attainable. Moreover, even a brief interruption to funding for curiosity-driven analysis might imply a severe hole. We wouldn’t really feel the results instantly, however we might be denying our grandchildren the uncooked supplies they might want to discover options to their issues in 100 years. 

Fortunately, the funds request and the infrastructure invoice unveiled by the Biden administration are signaling help for the whole spectrum of analysis actions. However I ask lawmakers and the general public to acknowledge that funding for technological development and speedy options should come alongside bigger, maybe even fivefold, investments in fundamental analysis — open-ended scholarship impressed not by speedy wants however by curiosity and marvel. It’s only after we have interaction with no finish purpose in thoughts that we are able to uncover the constructing blocks for the options we by no means dreamed of. 

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The views expressed on this article are the writer’s personal and don’t essentially mirror Truthful Observer’s editorial coverage.