Why Do Fundamental Research?21st September 2018
Most of the projects with which I have ever been substantially involved have been concerned with fundamental research. Fundamental research is typically interested in exploring ideas on the very edge of human knowledge, attempting to broaden our understanding of the basic principles of matter and the universe so that we can develop new models that allow us to fathom undiscovered depths. Fundamental research is exciting because it often leads in unexpected directions, revealing something not originally sought or paving the way for new fields and technologies. It’s not like applied research where an application has already been determined and you’re working toward a specific end. There’s no predetermined application in mind for fundamental research, and so sometimes it can be referred to as blue-sky research. I like that term because I can imagine a researcher staring up into the clear, blue sky, pondering the universe and waiting for inspiration to strike. It struck Newton in the form of an apple. It struck the dinosaurs in the form of an asteroid. (But that’s not relevant to this discussion).
I love being involved in fundamental research and I take great joy in sharing that excitement with others through presentations, talks, and not letting people off the elevator until they show the appropriate level of enthusiasm for what I’m unintentionally shouting about. And as excited (and dangerously animated) as I get when talking about the details, like the role nuclear physics plays in the search for dark matter or how capturing the signature of neutrinoless double-beta decay can explain certain mysteries about the Big Bang, people still have the gall to ask me such mood-killing questions as “How will this research be useful in the real world?” The nerve.
But it’s a perfectly valid question. Why do we do fundamental research? Why should we do fundamental research? When there are so many big problems that need to be solved, is it a waste of time conducting research with no immediate application? And in a world where most fundamental research is funded by government, why should taxpayers pay for it?
There are a lot of great answers to those questions ranging from the personal to the societal. It’s a popular topic for articles, papers, and economic research. If you were to ask me personally why I have chosen to engage in fundamental research, I would have trouble picking which answer to give you. I could give you “Because it’s exciting to be on the frontier of human knowledge!” or maybe “Because it’s deeply fulfilling to watch a theory come together and change the way we view the world around us.” I might even tell you “I do it to take a peek behind the curtain and hear the poetry of the universe, man”, but I need to be holding a tambourine to really make that one work. But let us step back from me and take a look at the big picture first and talk about why it make sense on the large scale to do fundamental research at all. The truth is that fundamental research is a fantastically positive investment of time and money.
First of all, the most obvious benefit of fundamental research is that it provides us with the knowledge we need to build the technologies of tomorrow. It may be difficult to understand how our research into, for instance, neutrinos, ghostly particles that pass through normal matter, could ever be used for any form of technology. However, scientists conducting fundamental research in the past couldn’t imagine the absolutely world-changing technologies that would one day be based on their work, either. Without work to discover and understand the electron, electric fields, radio waves, and electromagnetism - all work done in the realm of fundamental research - we would not have the world we do today. We would not only be missing our precious cell phones, computers, and cars, but the world would never have come to know, love, and eventually turn its back on Big Mouth Billy Bass. So what technologies could come out of the fundamental research of today? Neutrino radios capable of transmitting through any object, even the entire Earth? Gravity wave engines capable of propelling a starship through the depths of space? Dark Matter energy generators that require no fuel? The truth is, we don’t know. These are imaginary possibilities, but the reality will undoubtedly be more fantastic.
Of course, we don’t have to wait decades for the fruits of fundamental research to benefit us. The nature of fundamental research means that it doesn’t always go where we expect. This means we can often witness things we weren’t planning on, like the way microwaves can be used to cook food or how penicillin can be used to kill bacteria, both advances found incidentally during other research. Additionally, fundamental research has a way of resulting in immediate technological advances that help move the project along but find wider usage outside the research itself. Little things like the internet and wifi fall into this category.
An often-overlooked benefit of fundamental research is the opportunity for training scientists and engineers to solve big problems and think critically about large tasks. We live in a world that is permeated by big data. Financial markets, internet traffic, demographics, transportation logistics - these are all fields that are dominated by the need to analyze incredibly large sets of data. Fundamental research, particularly in my field, particle physics, provides an incredible opportunity to teach scientists how to gather and analyze such data. Many of my colleagues have gone on from searching for dark matter to working in the financial sector, computer science, or national security where their experience with big data has been instrumental. And it’s not just experience with big data that’s useful. Fundamental research in many fields provides an environment in which the innovators of tomorrow can pick up the skills they need to change the world.
Of course, one of the most compelling reasons to pursue fundamental research is the benefit to economic growth. Not only are jobs created directly within the fundamental research conducted, but the resultant innovations and technologies create more jobs. In some cases, entirely new industries can develop from that research. We need look no further than the worldwide computer industry to see how fundamental research into semiconductors revolutionized the world.
Whether we are talking about industry, technology, economy, or innovation, putting research into understanding the universe around us is a long-term investment that always pays off and provides continual returns.
Now, as all things should, let’s turn back to me. Why have I chosen to engage in fundamental research? Some days it’s because it’s the hairy edge of the unknown, the very precipice of the knowledge of humanity and I don’t want to miss it. Some days it’s because the pursuit of pure knowledge is the most fulfilling thing I can imagine. But today you might have to grab a tamborine, because I’m trying to take a peek behind the curtain and hear the poetry of the universe, man.