Should South Africa invest in fundamental research?
We all want to save the world or at least have a positive impact on our communities. This is evident even when you ask a child from kindergarten what they want to be when they’re older, most would answer: a doctor, a police officer, or lawyer. Whenever I give talks at public outreach events I always get this question: “How does astronomy advance our lives?”. Frankly, I haven’t figured out how to successfully tackle it. This question always haunts me, especially when I meet with colleagues from the health sciences. A staff member in my department once said “Your kind of research is a hobby for rich people.”, I am certain that many people share the same sentiments.
Shouldn’t I be using my big brains for the betterment of humankind?
South Africa’s unemployment rate is currently around 29% with youth unemployment at 58.2%. We have the highest inequality index in the world, our public health institutes are deteriorating, and the condition of schools in the rural areas is appalling. With all these issues we are facing which threaten basic human rights, should South African scientists spend their time trying to figure out what dark energy is? Should the government pour funds into fundamental research?
Fundamental research is driven by curiosity and desire to expand knowledge in a specific research area. Applied research, on the other hand, aims to solve specific problems and its findings have immediate practical implications. The recent white paper on science, technology and innovation maps out the direction that the Department of Science and Innovation will embark on in the years to come. The core emphasis of the white paper is inclusivity, transformation and partnerships. It is also strongly aligned with the national development goals and the sustainable development goals.
Although there is a strong pull towards applied research, the government still aims to fund and support fundamental research. In spite of the fact that applied research has an immediate impact, curiosity-driven research is at the core of many medical breakthroughs and technology advancement. The fruits of scientific and technological development in astronomy, especially in optics and electronics, are evident across various fields including aerospace and medicine.
Nobel Laureate and radio astronomer Martin Ryle developed the technique of aperture synthesis which was later transferred to the medical field. This technology is now used in computerised tomography (CAT scanners), magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography and many other medical imaging tools. These tools have revolutionised the diagnosis of brain tumours, chronic changes in lung tissue and coronary artery disease.
Laser physics is another archetypal example of how a discovery in basic physics led to a world-changing invention. Lasers (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) would never have been developed without a profound understanding of the quantum theory. The principle behind the laser goes back to the world’s most famous physicist, Albert Einstein, who in 1917 proposed a theory of stimulated light emission. Lasers are now used in medicine for various purposes including cancer treatment. They are also used in communications and industry to send information over long distances (optical fibres), to make precise trimmings, etc.
The above examples prove that fundamental and applied research have a synergistic relationship. Fundamental research is essential for the further development of applied research. My final thought is that we should not abandon fundamental research. It is through these crazy, sometimes wild, ideas that we will be able to make groundbreaking discoveries that will advance humankind. I’m probably that cat that was killed by curiosity and now in another life, I still have not given it up!