Curiosity-Driven Basic Research

On the heels of infrastructure week last month, discussion of air traffic control, roads, and bridges is still fresh in many people's minds. However, notably absent from any infrastructure discussion has been mention of knowledge, science and technology, and plans for fostering these critical — yet crumbling —aspects of our society which have been all but left behind current political conversation.

Author and professor Robbert Dijkgraaf is working to correct this potentially fatal oversight by reminding us that investment in “curiosity-driven basic research” is the bedrock of not only physical infrastructure, but of our knowledge infrastructure as well. It is this basic research that leads to profound discoveries in health and medicine, technology, and science.

An initial federal investment in research and development (R&D) support is essential — and is directly traceable—  to many technological advances that have proven invaluable to life in our country today. Things like smartphones, GPS, and the Internet, to name a few. A single National Science Foundation investment of $4.5-million made the Google search algorithm possible—and that investment may be one of history's wisest, if you're basing value on returns.

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Crumbling Knowledge Infrastructure

Our knowledge infrastructure, Dijkgraaf points out, needs immediate attention. He is joined in this belief by scientists throughout the nation, especially in the wake of the recent proposed budgets slashing investment in research. He is also joined by teachers, students, and everyday people who see the value of curiosity-driven basic research in their lives. Many of them have even taken to the streets in hopes of actively defending it.

It's easy to understand why they are worried: in recent decades, the percentage of GDP in private and public support spent on basic research has declined dramatically. The U.S. federal budget for R&D reached a high of 1.92 percent of the GDP in 1964. Today, it accounts for less than 0.8 percent, despite our country ostensibly having transitioned into the knowledge economy along with the rest of the world. New, pressing challenges posed by climate change, food insecuritywater quality issues, and epidemics of disease and violence all demand innovative responses — yet the investment isn't there, and hasn't been for generations.

The issue here is no mere intellectual exercise. It is rife with practical consequences. “Basic research not only radically alters our deep understanding of the world, it also leads to new tools and techniques that spread throughout society. . .,” Dijkgraaf writes in Scientific American. “No one can exclusively capture its rewards—it is a truly public good.” The trouble is that we are living in a time of disputed truths and disagreement about what constitutes public good. This setting makes investment into basic research even more difficult to champion, because there is no clear A and B directional input and outcome to point to.

Innovation Flowers — When Seeded

However, many of the most staggering, world-changing innovations of our time have come not from smaller, linear progressions in directed research, but from the unexpected outcomes of more organic basic research. The imagination, creativity, and the broad range of the human intellect are all key to innovation. Yet placing too many constraints upon such research stifles these core strengths, and in the end dilutes the fruits of our labors. There is no question that investments must be wise, and at times circumspect. But refusing to invest into our own collective human future can hardly be seen as wise under any circumstances.

We already know that failure doesn't yield practical benefits, even in the short term. We have indisputable proof: we know from experience what happens when the federal government invests in basic research. Discoveries like the laser and vaccines improve our safety, health, and quality of life. Jobs are created in science and technology industries, as well as indirectly in other industries as innovations create new lines of work. In this way, American industry booms and we remain competitive. Most of the fastest growing fields today — such as the renewable energy industry — are thriving thanks to investment into basic research.

As we invest in basic research and strengthen our intellectual infrastructure, we also enhance our national security. We learn to keep soldiers and civilians alike safer, wherever they are, and we improve our ability to detect threats before they arise. We nurture the next generation of STEM professionals, and in the process our local communities thrive. We benefit from the discoveries we make, and we bring them to the rest of the world as an innovation leader, which, incidentally, keeps us competitive on the global stage.

In this time of “alternative facts” and science denial, we must invest in our own knowledge base and future before it is too late.

“It is human to focus on necessities in times of stress. But investing in basic research, just like saving for retirement, is a prerequisite for ensuring welfare, innovation and societal progress,” Dijkgraaf cautions. “Long-term investments in basic research are crucial and lead to an even higher goal: the global benefits of embracing the scientific culture of accuracy, truth seeking, critical questioning and dialogue, healthy skepticism, respect for facts and uncertainties, and wonder at the richness of nature and the human spirit.”

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