Column: Fundamental research is still vital even during the coronavirus crisis

While there is clearly a strong desire to find solutions to existing problems, it is actually unfettered fundamental research which is not directed towards a specific, predefined application that can sometimes unexpectedly deliver those solutions, writes Koen Debackere together with other members of the Netherlands Advisory Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (AWTI).

A number of major problems facing society today are prompting us to look hopefully to scientific research for solutions. The coronavirus crisis has brought this into even sharper relief. What is needed is knowledge that can be applied immediately, and that knowledge is often generated through targeted research. However, this must not be at the expense of the quest for new fundamental knowledge. Without unfettered basic research to develop that fundamental knowledge, those new solutions are likely to turn out to be no more than minor improvements to existing solutions. Fundamental knowledge is the key that provides the basis for completely new, valuable applications and innovation. Fundamental research, applied research and innovation are thus extensions of each other, despite being governed from differing logics.

Fundamental research has no equal in generating unexpected, paradigms-shifting insights into culture, nature and humanity. Over time, this fundamental knowledge can open up surprising new pathways leading to societally and economically important applications and innovations, whose impact is of a totally different order of magnitude from the original investments in the research. However hard it may be to hear in this age of efficiency targets, it is precisely this impact in generating fundamental new insights that is unique to unfettered fundamental research. History is full of examples which illustrate that impact.

A good example is the quest begun in 1937 by the biophysicist Max Delbrück to find a universal law in gene biology. Although this quest proved fruitless, his work led to the breakthrough discovery in 1953 of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick (and Franklin). Move forward twenty years, and this discovery again proved to be the basis for the discovery of the recombinant DNA technology developed by Berg, Boyer and Cohen. And scientists are still building on this basis with fundamental research into mechanisms and methods to ‘cut and paste’ DNA, with examples such as Crispr-cas and, very recently, prime editing.

The central principle of the greenhouse effect was discovered back in 1856

These scientific developments have had an enormous influence. In Europe and the US today there are more than 700 listed biotech companies, employing more than 200,000 people, transforming our health care every day and together generating turnover of more than 140 billion dollars every year.

Or take climate research, which discovered that climate change is happening. The central principle of the greenhouse effect was first discovered as long ago as 1856 by Eunice Newton Foote. She found in an experimental setup that air heats up more when it contains a higher concentration of CO2. More than a hundred years later this principle explained the Earth’s changing climate. Thanks to follow-up research, we now understand better than ever how human actions influence our environment, enabling us to make informed choices about how we can keep that environment safe and healthy.

We now understand better than in the past that fundamental research, when combined with a well-functioning system of applied research and innovation, leads to societal impact. But every activity also has its own dynamic: developing fundamental knowledge is not an efficient activity. Nor could it be, given the inherently uncertain nature of this type of research: the outcome or goal is not known in advance, and it sometimes takes decades before we are able to gauge the true value of new insights.

Maintain a high level of trust in science

In addition, striving for efficiency actually exacerbates ineffectiveness. Examples that illustrate this ineffectiveness are the great desire of scientists to publish, or their risk-aversion driven by career considerations, causing them to stick to well-trodden and predictable paths. The huge scale on which science and research are practised today makes these problems all the more visible.

There is also a compensatory effect in the capacity that fundamental research creates for improvement and innovation. Take for example the growth of interdisciplinary research and the open science principle, where people other than scientists participate in the research. This challenges scientists to step outside the comfort zone of their own (‘safe’) domain. These improvements also benefit the transparency of research and thus its repeatability, providing a validation system that forms the basis for effectiveness. This striving for effectiveness is more important than ever in maintaining a high level of trust in science.

Unfettered scientific research to discover fundamental knowledge, and its application through innovation, are thus points on the same continuum. The drive for scientific effectiveness and the drive for efficiency of innovation processes are complementary. Together, they have led to a symbiosis which has benefited humanity and society in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

Co-authors:  Roshan CoolsSjoukje HeimovaaraEllen Moors and Nienke Meijer, Council members of the Netherlands Advisory Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (AWTI), and Chris Eveleens, scientific staff member at AWTI.

This column first appeared in the Dutch national newspaper Trouw.