Einstein did ‘basic research’. This is what that term means

A few years ago, a government science agency conducted a poll to try to understand the public’s perception of the work they were funding. One of the biggest surprises was how people felt about public funding for “basic research.” Most people felt that the government should not spend any tax money on basic research at all. Instead, those funds should go to advanced research.

This was sort of punchline for the official who told my colleagues and me about the poll during a lecture he gave at the University of Rochester. The results showed a clear gap between what scientists mean by basic research and what almost everyone thinks it means. Given the importance of basic research to science, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider what the term really means and what activities it describes.

Einstein the “basic” physicist

For scientists, basic research really means: fundamental Research. But to understand its meaning even better, we have to contrast the idea of ​​’base’ with that of ‘applied’. There is no immediate application for the fruits of basic research. They won’t instantly become a gadget in your next car or a molecule in your next drug. Instead, the point of basic research is something far less tangible: pure understanding. That’s why we call it fundamental. The goal is to understand a particular aspect of a subject at its most essential level.

The history of scientific research is full of useful examples. For example, in 1905. Albert Einstein published his groundbreaking paper on the special theory of relativity, which focused on the most basic concepts that physics uses to understand everything: matter, motion, and energy. The versions of those concepts then in common use had been developed by Isaac Newton a few hundred years earlier. But Einstein saw how limited Newton’s descriptions of these fundamental things were players in physics. The relationships Newtonian physics described between, say, energy and motion (ie, speed) didn’t tell the whole story. Einstein developed a more basic, more fundamental understanding of such relationships, and in the process gave physics new equations such as E = mc2.

When Einstein was working on this article, he wasn’t thinking about how these formulas would be applied to any particular industry or medical field. He was no doubt aware that his ideas would find such applications. They were too important not to become the basis for new machines and new techniques that would influence everyday life. But job applications just weren’t what he did or why he did it.

Fundamental research is actually the key

Einstein’s fundamental research changed the world forever. I could easily list, as long as your arm, the actual downstream applications of that 1905 article. It would cover everything from radiation therapy to hyper-accurate GPS satellites.

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This example shows that basic research is indeed very advanced. In fact, it is the most advanced of all types of research out there because it pushes the boundaries of knowledge. In today’s world, such fundamental research takes many forms. Cosmology is about understanding the first moments after the Big Bang. Planetary science is about understanding how the core of a world forms and leads to protective magnetic fields. Biology is all about understanding how life uses information to perform its most basic tasks. Cognitive science is all about understanding how the brain sorts its many inputs into what is relevant and what is not.

The main point of basic research is that it is almost always the key to advanced applied research – the kind that generate jobs and wealth and contribute to a country’s GDP. A robust national scientific infrastructure – with a healthy dose of basic research resources – is the engine that changes the world. The laser came from basic research. The internet is the result of fundamental research. The mRNA vaccines that tamed COVID came from basic research. All of the specific applied research that led to the countless technological marvels we encounter every day started with someone asking a very basic question, applied to nothing. Just as importantly, the knowledge and technologies that will usher in the future of energy and balance the Earth’s climate will also originate from someone asking fundamental, fundamental questions.

The most basic research is the most advanced. That’s your science zen koan for today.

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