Can we say that Mendel’s laws are central to genetics and Chargaff’s rules central to molecular biology? I think we can. I believe that many advances—both scientific and technological—in many areas of knowledge rest on foundations involving those principles. Why differentiate between scientific and technological advances or, if you prefer, between basic and applied science? I make that distinction because blazing a trail into the unknown is not the same as developing or applying knowledge that already exists. The dividing line may be vague and tenuous—a very fine line at times, no more than a nuance—but the two areas are different and both are essential.
For too long studies have not been seen as important if no future application was foreseenTechnological advances are easy to recognise: they have an obvious, direct impact on our daily lives. Scientific advances are not easily discerned, but they exist and constitute the foundations on which the edifice of technology is built. The best analogy is the well-worn metaphor of the iceberg: what we see of the structure is only a small part, the rest is hidden yet supports the whole. In science, the supporting structure must be continually expanded for two reasons: so that we can develop ideas for new technologies never before conceived, and so that we can improve existing applications.
For too long, however, studies have not been seen as important if no future application was foreseen or if a possible application glimpsed further down the road was somewhat distant and uncertain. If a result is something that cannot be sold, it is not deemed worthy of the expenditure of effort and, even less, of funding, especially in times of crisis. And this is not because those foundations have touched rock bottom or that the effort to expand our knowledge would be sterile; the problem is that basic research is considered unnecessary and absurd. Why should we do it if it is not going to yield an immediate return?
We live in the age of NOW, in the era of urgency and the Internet, in the world of fast food and patents that must yield a profitWe live in the age of NOW, in the era of urgency and the Internet, in the world of fast food and patents that must yield a profit. The idea of research done purely to learn more, to broaden our knowledge about something that might be truly abstruse, is becoming increasingly unthinkable. It is a very sad trend, but in today’s world if something is not visible it does not exist.
For years now, we have been surrounded by talk of climate change. We are warned about the risks, we read news reports about melting Arctic icecaps and ever more extreme weather patterns, and international conferences are organised and agreements signed to avert the imminent disaster. Then nothing is done. In the short term, business as usual is more profitable. In the long run, does anyone really care?
Something similar occurs with basic science. The line of authorities on all sides is that science should improve our quality of life. I don’t disagree, but the scant resources invested in research are currently focussed solely on the visible part of the task; the prospect for everything else is increasingly bleak and discouraging. It even seems that basic science is classified as a waste of time.
The idea of research done purely to learn more, to broaden our knowledge about something, is becoming increasingly unthinkableDon’t misunderstand me, I don’t mean that we have to advance continuously towards infinity and beyond, doing only basic research and never stopping to extract any tangible technological benefits. That’s not the point either. What I mean is that we should not think that only what can be seen is science, that only the visible part is useful, that we need only further the science that has tangible benefits. If we go that route, in a few years there will be nothing new on the horizon, at least nothing really different, nothing that marks a turning point. To use a simile: applied research spreads slowly and evenly, like a film of oil on water. Basic research allows us to make leaps on every side, opening up unexplored territory and new niches, which in the future will provide support for the pillars of new technologies or take existing technologies to new heights.
Going back to what we said at the beginning, it would be interesting to take a look at the work of Mendel and Chargaff without the benefit of 21st century hindsight. Let’s look at Mendel through the eyes of someone living in 1866. Thinking in terms of basic research, we now see a great contribution to knowledge, but if we think in terms of applications, we might well ask whether, at the time, Mendel’s work was useful or could even be perceived as being useful in some way? Do we see anything other than a crazy monk spending his days in a pea patch? And what about Chargaff’s rule: DNA has as many adenine bases as thymine bases and as many guanine bases as cytosine bases? In 1950, I doubt anyone saw a quick route to the marketplace in that piece of information.
This morning I turned on my computer and between sips of coffee came across a quote attributed to Einstein: “If rather than investigating electromagnetic fields we had focused on getting engineers to solve the problems of lighting, today we would have amazing oil lamps.”
That is certainly true.
Previous posts by Joaquim Ruiz
The forgotten disease of the Andes