While conducting research to improve the lives of others is certainly a worthy motivation, it is not the main reason why I get up very early in the morning to go to the lab. To me, gaining an understanding of a basic principle in the purest Faustian terms is what I find most rewarding and exciting.I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment although I would emphasize that the general public needs to understand that the important result of basic research is knowledge, and knowledge for its own sake is important. It's certainly far better than ignorance.
... For me, having a career in curiosity-driven basic research has been immensely rewarding. It is my hope that basic research remains one of the pillars of the American scientific enterprise, attracting the brightest young minds for generations to come. We as a community can help to make this a reality by telling people what we do and highlighting the importance of our work to their lives.
This kind of scholarly activity—curiosity motivated research—is the backbone of activity in the universities. At least it used to be. I still think that universities should stand up and defend the search for knowledge.
The second stimulus was an acknowledgement I recently stumbled across at the end of a paper by Ford Doolittle from 1982 (Doolittle, 1982).
And I' m most grateful to the Medical Research Council and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada for providing us with the funds to pursue our sometimes arcane interests without hindrance.The old MRC has become CIHR. It's hard to imagine any scientist writing such an acknowledgement today since CIHR is notorious for hindering basic curiosity-motivated research [see Support basic research with new leaders at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)].
Not only have the funding agencies abandoned curiosity-motivated research, so have the universities and that brings me to the third event. My university, the University of Toronto, has been trying to direct health research for several decades. It does this by preferentially funding and supporting research in designated areas that are likely to become the beneficiaries of substantial donations and/or support from the private sector. This emphasis often goes hand-in-hand with government wishes and the subverted goals of the funding agencies they control.
The latest example is a new research facility across the street from the main campus in a brand-new, expensive, building that's part of MaRS [U of T expands research facilities in new partnership with MaRS].
The first U of T groups to move over to the new MaRS tower are the Medicine by Design initiative, the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research, the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, and the ARCNet advanced research computing and data analytics centre. Other research groups from the Faculty of Medicine will move to MaRS to enhance existing networks in regenerative medicine, drug discovery and infectious disease.The idea here is to take successful, well-funded, research groups from different campus-based basic science departments and group them together in units that focus on, for example, drug discovery and infectious diseases. They will get all the perks of a new building and new research facilities and enhanced prestige and recognition.
Meanwhile, those researchers working on basic curiosity-motivated projects like Drosophila development, the targeting of cellular RNAs, the survival of mitochondria, theoretical investigations of protein folding, the structure of glycoproteins, and protein turnover in yeast and bacteria—to name just a few—will remain in a 50 year old building that looks more like a prison than a modern research facility. The message is loud and clear. Curiosity-motivated basic researchers are second class scientists unless they just happen to be working on projects that Faculty administrators think are important
That's not how universities should behave. I expect university leaders and administrators to stand up for the search for knowledge and promote the rights of researchers to go where curiosity takes them. That's what academic freedom is all about.
Is ‘what is this good for?’ a question to be discouraged?
Teaching Ethics in Science: Science v Technology
A worker in basic scientific research is motivated by a driving curiosity about the unknown. When his explorations yield new knowledge, he experiences the satisfaction of those who first attain the summit of a mountain or the upper reaches of a river flowing through unmapped territory. Discovery of truth and understanding of nature are his objectives. His professional standing among his fellows depends upon the originality and soundness of his work. Creativeness in science is of a cloth with that of the poet or painter.I'm not arguing that scientists who are interested in drug discovery or infectious diseases aren't motivated by curiosity just like the rest of us. What I'm arguing is that it should not be the university's business to reward those whose curiosity leads them in one direction and penalize those who are curious about something else. That's sending a strong message and the message is "go in this direction" if you want the perks. That's not compatible with supporting curiosity-motivated research and the quest for knowledge in its purest form.
National Science Foundation (USA) Annual Report 1953
Maybe the university needs to stop supporting curiosity-motivated research? That's worth debating but in my experience debate is not what university administrators want to hear. It's rare that professors and researchers are invited to discuss the decisions made in the President's Office or the Dean's Office even though those decisions will seriously affect their lives and their careers.
Why can't we at least discuss these issues rather than read about them in the newspaper?
Doolittle, W.F. (1982) Evolutionary molecular biology: where is it going? Canadian Journal of Biochemistry, 60:83-90.