Science builds knowledge, knowledge can be used for the advancement of our society. That is why you might hear the term: “Scientia potentia est” or “Knowledge is power”. The advancement of our society is obvious. Even for a young man like myself, the changes during my life have been incredible! During my short 28 years, I have seen the rise of new technologies like the internet, the cell phone, the cd, the dvd, 3d movies and so much more. Almost everyone can see the benefits of these new technologies. We have gotten so used to the incredible pace at which new technologies arrive, that whenever I tell people about my research they ask: “But what is the use of your research?”. This question is exactly what this post is about, the difference between applied and fundamental science. As you will see in this post, there is much more to life than solving practical problems.
So what is the difference between applied and fundamental science? The aim of fundamental science is to gain a better understanding of the world we live in, without a particular goal for which we could use that knowledge. So fundamental science is driven by human curiosity, the need to know.
The aim of applied science is to make new technologies available for the advancement of our society. Applied science depends on the state of fundamental knowledge for its advancement. An example of fundamental science is the discovery of penicillin. Alexander Fleming noticed during his study of bacteria that on a plate contaminated by a fungus (so by accident), bacteria did not grow near this fungus (see the figure below). His fundamental question was: why don’t bacteria grow near this fungus? This question was purely driven by his curiosity. He grew more of the fungus and performed several experiments in which he discovered that the fungus secretes a certain antibacterial component which he called penicillin. The example of applied science is also about penicillin. A good 10 years after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, Ernst Boris Chain and Howard Florey of Oxford University tried to make something from the discovery of penicillin that could be used by humans. They succeeded and the first antibiotic was born, saving thousands of lives!
The discovery of the bacterial growth inhibiting fungus Penicillium (Fleming, 1929).
Just imagine that Alexander wasn’t as curious and ignored the anti-bacterial fungus because he was too busy with other things. Ernst and Howard wouldn’t have been able to produce the first antibiotic, which would have prevented the search for more antibiotics and modern medicine would have looked very different.
So why perform fundamental scientific research?
The extremely fast development of new technologies makes many people accustomed to thinking about science as a way to make practical issues in our lives easier. So when a scientist talks about his or her discovery, the first question asked is often: “What is it useful for?”. If I tell that I am performing fundamental science, more than once there have been people that asked if I couldn’t do something useful, like cure cancer. Many media also participate in keeping the image of science as a way to help solving a practical problem. Certainly this is part of the responsibility of science, but many people forget the importance of providing room for decent fundamental scientific research. So why is fundamental science so important? I will try to explain this by a comparison with building a city.
Building a city
So what the heck am I talking about? Building a city… Well, it is quite simple actually. To build a house (something useful), we first need to have a foundation.In this case we know exactly why we need the foundation, we build the foundation (fundamental scientific research) in order to build a house (applied scientific research). What would happen if we would never build any new foundation? If we would never perform any fundamental science, we would never be able to build something completely new! We can build more and more upon what we already have, like the example above, but nothing new. If we start building a flat, than we can add new floors to it, but it will still be a flat. If we would want to build a completely different building, we would need a new foundation.
Why we need to lay the foundation before we know what we want to build
This immediately questions why wouldn’t we just build the foundation for something once we need a new building? That makes sense, if you want to build a supermarket near the flat, you start building the foundation after discovering the need for a supermarket. However, there are good reasons why we should build the foundation before we see the need for it.
The first good reason is that we cannot always foresee the potential benefit. There are many examples of fundamental science providing the foundation for unforeseen applications. The penicillin of Alexander is one. Another one is the discovery of Toll receptors in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster). They were first discovered for their role in building the embryo of the fruit fly, later they found that it was also involved in the immune response. After that, Toll receptors were also found in humans and there they also regulate the immune response. At the beginning, it was unthinkable that research on building a fly embryo could teach us so much about the human immune response. This insight has however thought us so much, that Jules Hoffman (the discoverer of the Toll receptor) was awarded the Nobel prize in Medicine. So fundamental scientific research can lead to extremely exciting new directions for applied scientific research!
Secondly, building the foundation takes time. A lot of time! When we encounter a new problem, we want to find a solution as soon as possible. If we have to start building the foundation once we have a need for something new, we are far too late! An example of this is the bird flu. Researchers have been studying the migration routes of birds for years. All this time it seemed kind of useless to study the migration routes because what was the benefit for humans? When the bird flu threatened our livestock, we all of a sudden wanted to know where it came from. Because of the extensive fundamental research on bird migration routes, we know that the bird flu currently in the Netherlands comes from Russia. This knowledge makes it possible to act quickly and take countermeasures to prevent the spread of the disease (which farms are at risk, keep them indoors and so on). Figuring out the migration routes after the outbreak of bird flu would still have taken years and would have been much too late to prevent the spread of the disease.
There are many more examples, but that would require an entire book. Here I only want to show that just because fundamental science is not immediately applicable, that doesn’t make it any less important!
Fundamental science is fundamentally exciting!
I have shown the useful distinction between fundamental and applied science. But there is more to fundamental science. Fundamental science provides the answers to quench our thirst for knowledge, lets us marvel about the many wondrous things that happen around us and is endlessly entertaining!
Today’s society tends to be short-sighted, only looking at potential short-term benefits for humanity. Communicating fundamental science to a broad audience is difficult, because many media ask for the potential benefit for humanity. They forget that science is exciting in its own right, that people want to know. It is our endless curiosity that led to our advanced society and it is endless curiosity that our society needs to advance further. We need to celebrate fundamental science for what it is, a way to get a better understanding of the world we live in. If that understanding becomes useful at some point, great! If not, still great, because we understand the world we live in a little bit better! Investing in fundamental science is investing in the future. So let us broaden our horizon and provide plenty of room for fundamental science in our society!
A. Fleming (1929) On the antibacterial action of cultures of a Penicillium, with special reference to their use in the isolation of B. influenzae. British Journal of Experimental Pathology, Vol X, No. 3. 226-236