A Case for Curiosity and Wonder in Science
After a year of enduring barriers imposed by the pandemic, scientists have good reason to welcome the Biden administration’s first budget request, which includes significant increases in funding for technology and innovation. Scientific progress requires this investment — indeed, it requires investment in the entire spectrum of discovery. We need use-inspired research, applied research and research that can turn abstract results into concrete solutions.
To use a factory analogy, every position along the assembly line needs to be operational and dependable. But, as a scientist and engineer, I argue that public investments at the beginning of the spectrum of discovery — basic curiosity-driven research — should outpace the investment at the end, finding technology solutions.
Trusting Science in Times of Uncertainty
The importance of curiosity-driven research cannot be overstated. The rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccines, for instance, arose from decades-long curiosity-driven research in cell biology. As a researcher who studies fluid flow, I know that answers to fluid mechanics questions posed a hundred years ago — about how air swirls, how water moves and pools or how blood flows — have enabled us to invent airplanes, imagine ocean wave energy extraction and improve drug delivery. Really, all inventions, from cell phones to solar panels, from hair dryers to wind turbines, are the offspring of curiosity-driven research of the past.
Despite its importance, funding sources for basic research are less diverse compared to funding for technology solutions. This is, in part, because private industry, which is often motivated by short-term profits, is unlikely to invest in curiosity-driven research. Instead, scientists who are willing to dedicate their time to questions that may not pay off for decades depend almost entirely on public funding.
Certainly, not every basic research project will, in the short term, lead to a breakthrough technological solution. And that’s precisely the reason why we should invest heavily in basic research upfront, to make sure we have plenty of raw materials at hand when we search for technology solutions. Investment in technology and innovation can then be more selective, with metrics requiring a clear return on investment. We seed liberally and water selectively.
However, the current budget request privileges funding toward technology. To be sure, it includes a 20% boost to the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF), bringing it to $10.2 billion. Much of this funding will go toward funding basic curiosity-driven research. But the budget request also calls for the creation of a new directorate within the NSF for technology and innovation, which would receive $50 billion — five times the NSF science budget — as part of President Biden’s infrastructure proposal. These funds would be used to turn new scientific insights into technology solutions.
Without a doubt, these investments are important. But if we invest only in efforts that lead to known desired outcomes, we will be bound by our imagination of what is possible. Furthermore, even a short interruption to funding for curiosity-driven research could mean a serious gap. We wouldn’t feel the effects right away, but we would be denying our grandchildren the raw materials they will need to find solutions to their problems in a hundred years.
Thankfully, the budget request and the infrastructure bill unveiled by the Biden administration are signaling support for the entire spectrum of research activities. But I ask lawmakers and the public to recognize that funding for technological advancement and immediate solutions must come alongside larger, perhaps even fivefold, investments in basic research — open-ended scholarship inspired not by immediate needs but by curiosity and wonder. It is only when we engage with no end goal in mind that we can discover the building blocks for the solutions we never dreamed of.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.