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Scientists urge government to fund basic research

While applied science is valuable and necessary to keep up in a competitive global economy, we need basic science as well to open new possibilities for true innovation, Bob McDonald writes.

Research into fundamental processes in nature needed to open new possibilities for true innovation

A team of Canadian scientists is part of the CERN Large Hadron Collider project, the world’s largest science experiment, which is probing the mysteries of the early universe. (REUTERS)

A survey of 12 countries, including Canada, shows that scientists are concerned about the drop in government support of basic science in favour of applied research that leads to short-term benefits.

The report, from the French National Trade Union of Scientific Researchers (SNCS-FSU), showed that governments in Argentina, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S. are shifting their funding away from basic research — the kind that looks at fundamental processes in nature — to more industrial science that leads to better products and economic gain.

While applied science is valuable and necessary to keep up in a competitive global economy, we need basic science as well to open new possibilities for true innovation.

To focus only on applied science is to limit future possibilities, because it is simply improving on a product.

Canada has a solid history of basic science (going back to World War II) that has gained us high regard on the international scene. We were the third country in space back in the '60s, and today a team of Canadian scientists is a valuable part of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest science experiment, which is probing the mysteries of the early universe. We have had Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, physics and medicine. We gave the world insulin and have joined international teams unlocking secrets of genetics, cancer, the environment and many more areas of scientific research.

But recently, governments have been concerned less with fundamental science and more with industrial developments  that contribute more directly and quickly to the economy.

Basic science is one of our last tools to seek the truth, and what we don’t know about nature far exceeds what we do know. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

While industrial research is important and needs support, it does not, in the long run, actually lead to the biggest payoff. Historically, most great discoveries, most revolutionary leaps of thought, have come from people asking fundamental questions.

When Michael Faraday explored the relationship between electricity and magnetism, he had no idea how many electrical devices his discoveries would lead to — from electric motors to GPS satellites and cellphones.

To focus only on applied science is to limit future possibilities, because it is simply improving on a product.

Sure, we need cars that are cleaner and more efficient, or computers that are smaller and faster. But if you really want to change things, you need to have people who are free to look at the fundamental forces that run the universe with no idea what they are going to find.

Basic science is an investment in the long-term future, which current governments seem to be less interested in.

Who knows what will come from understanding black holes, dark matter or dark energy, for example? Will it lead to Warp Drive? Or something we haven’t even imagined yet?

Basic science is an investment in the long-term future, which current governments seem to be less interested in.

The other value of fundamental research relates to my last blog about the role of science literacy, when it comes to having intelligent debates about issues in society that involve science. 

For example, a survey found that about half of Canadians cannot describe the DNA molecule, the so-called blueprint of life that is found inside every one of our cells. DNA is where all genetics takes place. So how can we have an informed discussion about the safety of genetically modified food if people don’t understand the basics?

Much has been written about recent cuts to Environment Canada, water programs, pollution management and polar studies, to make way for more efficient resource extraction. Apparently, we don’t want science to get in the way of the large profits to be made from moving oil and wood out of the country.

But we need the eyes of science to track how those activities affect the whole system.

Basic science is one of our last tools to seek the truth. That’s all it does: identify how systems in nature work. And what we don’t know about nature far exceeds what we do know. Remember, 95 per cent of the universe is “Dark” and we haven’t got a clue what all that dark stuff is.

To unlock those mysteries, to truly understand our role, and to truly expand our thinking, we need to keep those scientific eyes open. 

About the Author

Bob McDonald

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.