Back to the Basics: An Opinion on Basic Science Research Throughout History

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“Francis Bacon delineated science as having two purposes: the glory of the natural world and as a relief to man’s problems.” I stopped my scribbling to look up at my professor, the famous University of Oxford historian of science Allan Chapman. His voice echoed off of Wadham College’s oak-paneled Knowles Room, the same room where the first scientists of the Royal Society had gathered to form their organization. “The great scientists of the scientific revolution believed in a need to extract nature and to service humanity, but were ultimately motivated by an inner inquisitiveness for the natural order.”

I left my tutorial and walked into the crisp Oxford night with one question: how far had we really come? As part of my year-long study abroad program at the University of Oxford, I had decided to take a tutorial on the history of Western science, starting from Plato to present day developments.

Thinking this class would simply be a nice break from my intensive biochemistry classes, I have been transformed learning about the origins of the scientific method and much of the fundamental scientific truths I took for granted.

Many of the founding fathers of science—Johannes Kepler, William Harvey, and Charles Darwin—lived in different eras and had a variety of backgrounds. Yet they all had the same motivations for science: a deep-seated curiosity for the natural world.

Regardless of how their discoveries were later applied for technological advancement, these scientists were foremost sharp observers of their surroundings. They asked fundamental questions, sometimes without consideration to direct application.

The answers to these basic questions about planetary orbits, blood circulation, and evolution have led to countless revolutionary applications such as satellites, heart transplantations, and drugs counteracting antibiotic-resistance.

These revolutionary scientists also had another commonality: a steady funding source from governments or other large presiding organizations. Tycho Brahe, a 17th century Danish was given the island of Hven by the King Frederick II to build an observatory and research institute to further knowledge of planetary motions for the sake of knowledge itself.

Johannes Kepler derived his three laws of planetary motion from Brahe’s highly accurate measurements;these scientific principles are now used for satellite launching. Other than political support, religious institutions were another large funding source for early natural philosophers. Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research until the French Revolution.

The Jesuit order had become the leading scientific organization in Europe and published thousands of papers. Religious support for science was not from a practical application view, as much of it was not technologized until the 19th century. PhDs in the scientific field were not employed until the 1830s by German chemical industries. The primary reasons to study science was out of pure curiosity and admiration for divine creation.

The American public’s trust and understanding of scientific research has improved since Copernicus and Galileo. But the Trump administration’s insistence of “alternative facts” and 11% decrease for the National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for the fiscal year (FY) 2018 reflects the American people’s growing skepticism of basic science research.

These basic science cuts coincide with a $54 billion (10%) increase in FY 2018 funding from 2017 for higher priority spending targets, such as applied defense research. The Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney stated it best when asked about cuts to basic climate change research: “We’re not spending money on that anymore, we consider to be a waste of your money to go out and do that (Fountain & Schwartz, 2017).”

With a myriad of imminent problems, basic science can easily seem a frivolous and expensive endeavor. But no innovative scientific discovery has come from a purely application-based approach to research. In 1896 France, Antoine Henri Becquerel wondered if sunlight could excite uranium to expose electromagnetic rays onto photographic film.

A couple cloudy days forced Becquerel to leave his experiment indoors, and he found that the uranium itself emitted X-rays. The Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman made significant advances in the field of quantum electrodynamicswhich gave us more powerful computers and lasersby watching plates wobble when thrown up in the air.

Humanity has scientifically progressed light-years since the 17th century. But we have ignored one of science’s main purposes as proposed by Bacon: the glory of the natural world. Basic science research is underappreciated because research aimed towards improving our understanding of the natural world often seems to have no immediate payoff.

Scientists are forced to answer the question of “So what?” to taxpayers frustrated about how their money is funneled into seemingly useless discoveries. I understand the desire to keep scientists accountable with regards to the scope and limits of their experiments. But we need to educate the public of the realities of the scientific process.

If we yearn for societal betterment, we need science to flourish organically. This can only be achieved by allowing talented scientists to explore basic science research areas that might not yet have a direct technological application with sufficient funding. I urge us all, as future-scientists, policy-makers, and beneficiaries of the fruits of basic science research, to stand up for the scientific process.

1. Fountain, H., & Schwartz, J. (2017). Scientists Bristle at Trump Budget’s Cuts to Research. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/climate/trump-budget-science-research.html?_r=0