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Professor Daniel Zajfman, president of the Weizmann Institute of Science, is a physicist in the fields of atomic and molecular physics. He has a strong interest in the popularization of science

George Mallory, the man who almost made it to the top of Everest, is probably most famous for his terse reply when asked why he attempted to climb it: “Because it’s there.” Scientists often resemble mountain climbers: We want to understand nature because it’s there. Why, in today’s world, should we be devoting precious resources to finding out what happened in the Universe’s first billionth of a second or the ideal arrangement of atoms in a particular molecule?

The answer, in a nutshell, is that when we satisfy our urge to know, we’re also benefitting humanity. Granted, the lion’s share of research investment rightfully goes into solving the pressing problems: drug development, alternative energy, etc. These are studies designed to meet well-defined goals, set out within strategic plans developed by political or financial leaders; or else they’re propelled by market forces. But if we invest exclusively in this kind of research, we’ll have no future.


Why? Consider some of the most important technological and medical advances of the last century: Lasers, for instance, were not invented as part of a plan to shoot down enemy missiles, nor were their inventors thinking of new ways to listen to music. The structure of DNA was not solved with cures for diseases in mind; transistors were not invented so we could talk on cell phones; Einstein couldn’t have imagined GPS satellites when he came up with the theory of relativity on which they rely; the Web wasn’t created to give teens a new form of social interaction.

A thousand useless ideas

Around 115 years ago, J.J. Thompson, the discoverer of the electron, raised a toast “to the useless electron.” Can we even imagine the world today without this “useless” discovery? None of these ideas, or any of a thousand others, arose because somebody “needed” it. Electrons, lasers, DNA, transistors: At first, we had no idea what we could do with them, or how they would eventually change our lives. What we really need to ask ourselves is this: Did anyone “mandate” finding the electron? Or did its discovery come about because a scientist had the freedom to think – and to experiment – with his only aim that of understanding how nature works?

If, as a society, the only research we are willing to support is defined by today’s problems, our future will be limited to the horizon of our current understanding. If we only invest in solving our most urgent issues — cancer, global warming, defense, etc. — we will lose everything still unknown that we MIGHT discover.

Growth engine

True: We can’t predict the future impact of today’s discoveries, or even which ones will change our lives or when this will happen. Yet history and economics show that few investments are more worthwhile. Indeed: We’ll have to abandon strategic and political planning, and there are risks. But such investment can be managed: It must be made wherever there is academic excellence — even in fields that are “irrelevant” to today’s needs. Infrastructure must be provided, along with the freedom to think and investigate. Experience shows that academic freedom and peer review are superb mechanisms for recognizing excellence. The beloved maxim of planners — only that which can be measured can be optimized — doesn’t always hold true in academia. Sometimes, a broad, even fuzzy, proposal is preferable: It allows for flexibility and enables researchers to adjust quickly to new findings, especially when they’re unplanned.

In the end, the investment in curiosity pays off. The payoff can be enormous and the price is low — considering the return. The freedom to research is the growth engine of the future.

Comments

  1. #1 Terrence
    June 28, 2010

    Thank you for the great read!

    Here’s too another a thousand “useless” discoveries!

  2. #2 Loren Petrich
    June 29, 2010

    This issue reminds me of US Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards for wasting government money, which he presented from 1975 to 1988. Some of it was for research that he considered absurd, like SETI and some university’s walking robot. He chortled about what wonders that robot would do for that university’s football team.

    I remember someone satirizing Sen. Proxmire’s approach by considering how great discoveries in the past would have fared. Cross-breeding pea plants and fruit flies?

  3. #3 James Hanley
    July 3, 2010

    “Mallory,” not Melory.

    And there’s nothing new about your economics. These ideas go back, at a minimum, to Joseph Schumpeter. You’re talking about classic entrpreneurialism, the creative urge. It’s a great thing, and a great thing to recognize and talk about. But it’s not new.

    Forgive me if I sound snarky, but I see from your bio that you’re a physicist, not an economist. Perhaps you shouldn’t assume you’ve found something new in a different academic field until you’ve put more effort into learning that field.

  4. #4 Weizmann Science Writer
    July 4, 2010

    “Mallory” was a translation slip, and not Prof. Zajfman’s mistake.

  5. #5 llewelly
    July 4, 2010

    “Indeed: We’ll have to abandon strategic and political planning …”

    Without planning, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of looking back at what has happened, and thinking: “oh, that seems fairly obvious and straightforward, of course we must have expected it.” Having the plans and projections on record to compare and contrast with what actually happened enforces the humility necessary to understand the limits of our visions of the future. Society needs plans for the same reason scientists require hypotheses; our understanding is improved by learning how wrong they are.

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