The Impact of Fundamental Science on Researchers and Society

It was not surprising that after the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 some of the most frequently asked questions were “What can we use your research for?” and “Does it have any application?”. These questions may have different origins: First, for non-experts the research honoured with this prize is very difficult to grasp because it is so abstract. Thus, having a (pseudo)application or a visualisation of the research can be powerful. It is no surprise that the “nano-car” received such widespread recognition. The human mind tends to seek some kind of concrete example to help them understand abstract concepts. Second, society finds that research of any kind should have at least some sort of accountability towards its funders, which is oftentimes the public. Third, in a world where we face many challenges, it can be difficult – if not impossible – to see how such research contributes to solving daily problems around us (be it hunger, war, energy, climate change, health, etc.). This “missing link” can lead to frustration and provoke the desire to see immediate benefits and products that improve daily life. Today, an increasing number of aspects of life are put under the scrutiny of innovation, productivity and economic measures. It is thus getting more and more difficult to justify research that has no immediate gain. Fundamental research as such thus seems to be locked in a fight for funding, for professorships and sometimes even for its existence.

The term fundamental science or research as opposed to applied research is used herein to describe research without an immediate apparent value, application or product in mind, often also referred to as basic research. Oftentimes, it sets out to answer a specific (set of) question(s). For this kind of research the following criteria are essential: (1) its outcome is often unknown, (2) the researcher is working at the frontier of knowledge (no one has done anything similar before) and (3) the research extends current knowledge. The research efforts that won this year’s Nobel Prize, but also the discovery of gene editing and experiments conducted at CERN, are excellent examples of this kind of research.

 

#LiNo17 participant Michael Lerch is currently carrying out his doctoral research in the laboratory of Ben Feringa at the University of Groningen. Photo/Credit: Dusan Kolarski

#LiNo17 participant Michael Lerch is currently carrying out his doctoral research in the laboratory of Ben Feringa at the University of Groningen. Photo/Credit: Dusan Kolarski

 

In times of tightening budgets for research and increasing economisation of universities and research outputs in coordination with increased student numbers, fundamental research has been facing scrutiny and has been under attack. This is not necessarily bad as such scrutiny and scarcity of resources could arguably increase quality of research. However within these discussions, some beneficial aspects and effects of fundamental science tend to be forgotten. Hence, I would like to highlight how fundamental science shapes its practitioners and impacts society. Fundamental research is a school of life and plays an important role in fostering critical thinking and creativity. Fundamental science further benefits society, for example, by generating knowledge, by enabling unexpected long-term applications, by forming independent and critical citizens and sometimes by supporting leadership and teaching. For fundamental research to be effective, aspects like credibility in a post-factual world are paramount. It is also critical that researchers and a public that is willing to listen are equal partners in dialogue. To enable such a dialogue, the social competence of researchers becomes important. It is the researcher’s responsibility to actively go out and tell the public why scientists do what they do, what the benefits are and why fundamental research is so important. The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings have been playing an essential role in this for decades. In addition, Nobel Laureates are often visionaries of their times and inspiring role-models for both successful approaches in research and experts in the social competences and communication that are so important for the dialogue with the general public.

 

Impact on students

Fundamental science in the way it has been set up since the advent of universities is first and foremost an educational experience for the student. Doing a Ph.D. is often a transformative process and has an immense influence on personal development. This transformative experience is directly linked to the nature of fundamental research. Three aspects are worth highlighting in this context: (1) social toolbox/character formation, (2) critical and analytical thinking and (3) creativity.

One can form character through different tools and approaches. While desirable character traits change with time and are a matter of public debate, there are certain traits that are associated with being successful in life: resilience, frustration tolerance, knowledge of your own limitations, grit, integrity and reliability. Scientific research is challenging and can be very frustrating. As one sets out to learn the basic tools and skills needed to be a successful researcher, one is immediately confronted with one’s own limitations, frontiers of personal but also general knowledge. Many students, although used to writing small pieces of scientific work, have never conducted independent intellectual work before. Doing so is very hard and even more so frustrating. Besides increased anxiety and a feeling of inadequacy, many students feel unhappy about their chosen work as they are not prepared for the stress and frustration that comes with it. Overcoming the daily challenges of research requires hard work, resilience, dedication and persistence and contributes to the education of responsible, independent global citizens.

Furthermore, science has a very high standard and code of conduct at its core. This teaches students integrity and reliability. Appropriate supervision and coaching can be paramount to a student’s success. If one talks to successful Ph.D. students that had a lot of freedom during their doctoral years, they will often say that the first year felt like a lost year: “I did not have a clue how to do research”, “I was so inefficient in the beginning” or “I did not know why and how I should be doing research”. By talking further, it often becomes apparent that even though scientifically this initial period of time might feel “unproductive”, it actually was a period of fundamental transformation of a person’s thinking and provided him or her with the toolbox necessary for research. And it is this aspect, in my opinion, that makes fundamental research valuable as an educational experiment that goes far beyond research itself.

 

Michael Lerch is currently carrying out his doctoral research in the laboratory of Ben Feringa at the University of Groningen. Photo/Credit: Dusan Kolarski

The doctoral candidate develops molecular photoswitches that can control biological functions. Photo/Credit: Dusan Kolarski

 

However, persistence, resilience and hard-work will not bring you all the way. Mental capabilities such as discipline of mind as well as critical and analytical thinking are also of crucial importance. What is taught at university is thus essential for further success in research. The approach to fundamental research makes all the difference between being productive and losing sight of a goal and purpose. This approach, together with the mental, social and intellectual tools that come with it, is something that needs to be taught to younger students and researchers. Take responsibility for yourself, be proactive, choose what you are working for, know why you have chosen this and be able and willing to defend this in front of others. This is not only a scientific education, but in many ways also a political one: learn to not just accept facts as such, but verify them as well as possible, realise the importance of perseverance and that nothing that really matters comes without effort, and build resilience. That does not mean that with having the right approach to research doing it on a daily basis becomes easy – far from it. But having a framework to understand why one is doing something and what it can lead to can help build the resilience needed to succeed not only in science but also in life. In addition, fundamental scientific research is much too frustrating if you do not have the mental and scientific toolbox to at least achieve “mini” victories by reaching intermediate milestones that are publishable and that allow you to feel productive in a certain way. This is also the reason why it is generally advisable to learn from the best practitioners in the field.

Finally, creativity is essential. In physical sciences, where most experiments fail, creativity keeps research going, helps us to see the problems faced each time from a different angle, allows us to come up with new ideas and look at the subject under investigation in ways no-one has ever looked at before.

 

Impact on society

The educational transformation achieved through research described above is important not just for the researcher but also for society. The majority of trained professionals will spill over from academia into other areas of work including industry, consultancy and services. Transferrable skills are important here. Beyond the oft-quoted skills such as presenting, supervision and time-management, exposure to fundamental research is, to a much greater extent, fundamental training in thinking and behaviour, which has benefits for society. Unfortunately, these aspects are often overlooked, because it is so difficult to make non-scientists understand what it really means to conduct fundamental research.

Our places of work are in the midst of ongoing changes. Technological advances are transforming our environment and the way we work and live. Industry 4.0 and advances in automation and artificial intelligence will make knowledge workers more important. The tools and skills acquired through research allow us to find our way in such an environment. Purely economically speaking, the knowledge and skills gained make researchers useful in a broad variety of positions and empower them to be productive and independent workers who make novel discoveries. In addition, beyond the immediate philosophically beneficial gain of knowledge, the answers found through fundamental research are often picked up later in a completely unrelated context and can lead to impressive applications: LCD displays, photodynamic therapy and green fluorescent protein, to name but a few.

The academic world is international with many researchers studying abroad, visiting and experiencing different cultures and regions of the world. With increasing regionalism and the growing importance of nation-states, cultural understanding and global ties are essential. It is then also the openness to new things and the ability to work in multicultural and international teams that make researchers highly valuable additions for employers.

 

Michael studies molecular photoswitches that can control biological functions. Photo/Credit: Dusan Kolarski

Michael in the Feringa lab at the University of Groningen. Photo/Credit: Dusan Kolarski

 

Conclusion

It is important to regularly reflect on the role scientists play in society and on the training that students receive. When fighting for the importance and relevance of fundamental scientific research, researchers have to focus on the aspects discussed and make clear to lay people that fundamental science can make a difference. They also need to explain that research not only has a purpose per se but also that, if done right, it can have tremendous additional beneficial effects, which spill over into our society and impact our future.

Nonetheless, fundamental science also faces challenges from within: researchers need to be more realistic and transparent when communicating goals and practices to a general audience. For an understanding and listening audience, one needs trust. This trust, however, is difficult to build, especially if scientific evidence becomes opinion. Overpromising will certainly not help here. Researchers need to carefully evaluate when and in what way they promote their work and science in general. For parts of society that understand the scientific method, it is necessary and effective to talk about the process of research and why researchers do it instead of just talking about impacts and applications. For other parts of society that lack such an understanding, however, it will be more effective to fight for science without explaining what and why one does something,and this challenges fundamental science: it will always depend to a certain extent on funding sources that need to be satisfied. Scientists need to be aware of this and develop the necessary arguments and the social tact to promote their work. Fundamental scientists are exposed to the frontiers of knowledge on a daily basis. This is sometimes a tough but very often also a rewarding thing to do (playground-analogy). But most importantly, it shapes us and forces us to think beyond boundaries. Many of the leading scientists of the current and past generations have done so during the Lindau Meetings and will also do so this year!

Michael M. Lerch

About Michael M. Lerch

Michael M. Lerch, Lindau Alumnus 2017, is currently pursuing a Ph.D. degree in Groningen under the supervision of Nobel Laureate Ben L. Feringa. Michael's research focuses on controlling biological systems with light and the development of photoswitches for functional applications. During his BSc and MSc degree at ETH Zurich, he also conducted research at the University of Cambridge and the California Institute of Technology. Michael has actively been involved in science-communication and outreach for critical thinking through the Switzerland-based think-tank "Research and Technology Switzerland", the Swiss Study Foundation and engagements with "The Public Sphere". He is passionate about educating students about the scientific publishing process through Honours Review.

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