Why support basic research?

Live 2017

Professional training through research is not only beneficial to the growth of the academic and private research community.

 By Tina Gruosso

Commissioned by Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan, Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, also known as the “Naylor Report”, was delivered to the government on April 10, 2017. The report highlights, among other things, a cruel lack of funding for basic research. Researchers and academics strongly welcomed the report’s recommendations, particularly the increase in funding for basic research. But why is it so important to support basic research?

Knowledge and innovation

Applied research studies the practical application of scientific knowledge (mathematics, biology, physics, chemistry, engineering and social sciences). This research corresponds to an effort to convert scientific knowledge into technology for the good of society, for example through developing new drugs or new sources of energy.

While it is fairly straightforward to understand the benefit of applied research for society, it is more difficult to identify the impact of basic research – the work done on the basic issues of a discipline without immediate practical applications.

So why support basic research? It depends on our long-term vision of society. Indeed, applied research feeds on knowledge accumulated through basic research. Basic, fundamental research is ultimately the exploratory part of applied research, so it is essential for innovation. Both types of research, fundamental and applied, are therefore two inextricable parts of the same creative process.

A skilled workforce

When we talk about “research funding”, we refer to the purchase of advanced equipment but also to the salaries of students and young researchers. It is they, among others, who make discoveries under the scientific supervision of their director. Conducting research requires a methodology based on evidence. Academic training teaches rigorous methodology and skills that will be useful in areas other than basic research.

Indeed, all these young researchers will not become professors and all will not have a linear academic career, far from it.

But then why train more researchers than universities and research institutes can employ? Because training through scientific research creates a highly skilled workforce (evidence-based methodology, information retrieval, data collection, communication and data synthesis, etc.). Professional training through research is therefore not only beneficial for growing the academic and private research communities. It also trains qualified graduates who are beneficial to the Canadian labour market. 

Research, a tool for politicians?

Scientific methodology consists of drawing a conclusion from established facts. Science and basic research can accumulate data and knowledge about our society and our ecosystem. Scientific research thus takes the pulse of the world in which we evolve.

Since the world is in constant evolution, it is essential to adapt the policies of a country accordingly and in the national interest. In this sense, governments must legislate by being informed of the evolution of society.

By providing accurate and quantifiable data, research can inform policy decisions to better serve citizens. One can easily imagine that legislation to limit the fishing of certain threatened animal species is based on data collected by biologists. Another example is that the aging of the population as quantified by researchers can help improve pension plans. Science can therefore be a powerful tool for politicians both for these conclusions and for its methodology.

Values ​​of equality, tolerance and sharing

In addition to the benefits for innovation, the labour market and politics, what are the other benefits to a society that values research and science?

Yanick Villedieu in his brief eulogy of science said, “The science that opens our eyes to the magnificence and poetry of the Universe gives us more humanity. Knowledge and imagination, which feed each other, is what makes us grow. ”

Science and research have a global objective and are vectors of humanistic values. They encourage openness, collaboration, sharing of knowledge and denounce lies and withdrawal. As Quebec’s chief scientist Rémi Quirion points out, “science has no borders”.

This is why we talk about science as a tool to bring people together or “scientific diplomacy”. While two countries may be in a period of diplomatic tension, researchers share the same language, that of science. Unlike diplomats, who each have objectives of specific national interest, researchers have a common goal, which is knowledge. Science, by its nature, therefore conveys values ​​of tolerance.

Indeed, what could be more inspiring than the handshake between U.S. astronaut Thomas Stafford and Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov when the American Apollo ship and the Russian Soyuz spacecraft met in space in 1975? This handshake was highly symbolic since at the same time the United States and the USSR were still in the midst of the cold war.

Fundamental research is therefore a key driver of innovation, provides advanced training for future executives across all sectors, and is a political and humanistic tool that conveys values ​​cherished by Canadians such as diversity, tolerance and sharing.

Tina Gruosso is a postdoctoral researcher at McGill University and vice-president of the non-profit Science & Policy Exchange, which launched the #Students4thereport campaign in support of basic research and the review of federal support for science.

This story first appeared in French on University Affairs.

December 22, 2017

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