Vannevar Bush PhD '16 served as America's first presidential science advisor. Image: MIT Museum
Vannevar Bush PhD ’16 served as America’s first presidential science advisor. Image: MIT Museum

Basic, or discovery-driven, research is the foundation upon which new technologies are built. GPS, smartphones, treatments for infectious diseases—all were made possible by basic research. Yet the men and women who made these breakthroughs didn’t set out with a specific application in mind; rather, they were fueled by a sense of curiosity and a passion for discovering new ideas.

Recently published on the Simons Foundation’s website, “The Pleasure (and Necessity) of Finding Things Out” makes the case for pursing basic research, explaining why it’s necessary to invest in science even when it’s unclear what its ultimate benefit will be. “The very definition of ‘basic research’ means investigating unexplained phenomena with unproven hypotheses and uncertain methods,” the essay notes, citing MIT alumnus Richard Feynman’s journey to the Nobel Prize as a prime example, and pointing to another famous MIT mind as reinforcement: “It’s no accident that Vannevar Bush titled his 1945 report to President Roosevelt on the essential value of basic research “Science: The Endless Frontier.”

In this excerpt, author John Pavlus describes one of the paradoxes of discovery-driven research:

“The scientific discovery process, fueled by creativity and intellectual freedom, produces so many of our society’s technical and humanitarian achievements, while also undergirding the United States’ economic prosperity and national security. Nevertheless, this same discovery process can all too easily be seen as a luxury when our nation is under stress or threat.

The trouble with that analysis is that work that seems idle one day can become crucial the next — and until scientists discover a working crystal ball, society will never be able to make the distinction in advance. Discovery-driven research is the best investment we can make in the face of the multiplying complexity and uncertainty that increasingly defines our new century. It is, literally, an investment in ourselves at the most basic level — not merely a hedge against “unknown unknowns,” but a commitment to embracing them.

…We must bear in mind that lifesaving vaccines and treatments require decades of wrestling with the most basic puzzles of biochemistry, and that the seeking of knowledge for its own sake is not a privilege that we earned by achieving economic dominance, but a value that allowed us to achieve that position in the first place.”

Read the full article at the Simons Foundation website.

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One comment

  1. I think its mostly about people. Basic discoveries can be done when there is the right environment, but in modern society we need to motivate the young ones to get into science. The atmosphere that is created for the youth makes way for the basic discoveries. What I mean by that is that children should be once again triggered to think outside of the box. As a person from the Netherlands, a media driven society, I can see the results of how we are doing things today. Because everything is driven by ficticious needs created by the media, many young ones will no longer participate in solving basic puzzles. Let alone start with actual research. 

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