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Utility of fundamental research ?

  1. May 19, 2008 #1
    Hi everyone,

    Can scientific research be founded on utility ?

    I expect this to be a contreversial topic. I certainly do not want to bias the answers by my own opinion. I was surprised to discover a few other researchers' opinions.

    Sorry if this does not belong to GD, please move to the appropriate sub-forum.

    Thanks in advance for sharing thoughts.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 19, 2008 #2
    Sure, but it seems restrictive. For instance, utility that was unknown earlier can be discovered by pursuing a field where research seems to lack utility at first.
  4. May 19, 2008 #3
    Understood and agreed. I would like to make it clear from the beginning : there are many aspects to this problem, so please indicate the one you feel is the most important to you :smile:
  5. May 19, 2008 #4


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    Some comments came up in the chat yesterday regarding the philosophy or purpose of science and technology. I had to leave and I timed out so I could retrieve the discussion. Vanesch and others contributed.

    I think there is need for research in both pure and applied sciences. Certainly the money is perhaps more readily available for applied science, since tangible benefits are usually apparent, as opposed to the intangible benefits of pure science.
  6. May 19, 2008 #5


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    I've actually written about this elsewhere in conjunction with a news article related to a speech given by Bob Rosner, Argonne's current director. So rather than repeating what I've said, I'll just give you a link here.

  7. May 19, 2008 #6
    Thank you Astro and Zz, I appreciate your sharing thoughts. :smile:
  8. May 19, 2008 #7

    Ivan Seeking

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    To me it seems beyond question that fundamental research is justified by the utility of the resulting technology, but it is a matter of time. In fact I tend to think in terms of 100 year increments before the utility of scientific advances are fully appreciated: Newton's work made possible the industrial revolution, which came about a century later. Maxwell published in 1864, and it was 100 years later that most Americans were getting their first television. The foundation of the information age that we enjoy today - that is changing the world in ways that we can only begin to fathom - was layed in the early nineteen hundreds by the fathers of quantum mechanics. And it would appear that Einsteins quanta and the photoelectric effect will finally result in cost effective and practical solar panels almost exactly 100 years after he recieved his nobel prize.

    If we were to make a list of the top 100 most significant advances in technology that affect our lives today, how many would not be rooted in pure research? And beyond the long term benefits, as noted in Zapper's response, we often do see the benefits in two or three decades. For example, the first working LASER - then called a solution in search of a problem - fired only 48 years ago, and the benefits from it were seen almost immediately.

    It is not utility that must be demonstrated, it is a question of the value placed on the future of humanity. Is it worth investing in the future of the human race? Do we owe the effort to future generations to continue the grand tradition of discovery, or shall we merely profit from the efforts of those who came before us? How much value do you place on your children's future?
    Last edited: May 19, 2008
  9. May 19, 2008 #8
    Thank you Ivan for your very nice answer. I completely agree with the first parts of your message. They were discussed by my colleagues over the lunch, I think triggered by a dissertation submitted to one of their relative (I joined in the middle). They also discussed the dangers of obscurantism. But it appeared to me that the most important point is that one :
    To me, arguing about utility is a tentatively-objective presentation. I am aware that economical models are not exact science, and subjectivity prevails, but the construction involves a model attributing a measure which one tries to evaluate. "Why society invests in fundamental research ?" is more of a moral choice it seems to me. To summarize and try to make it clearer : one cannot present a (even pseudo-)scientific argument to argue in favor of science.
    Last edited: May 19, 2008
  10. May 19, 2008 #9

    Ivan Seeking

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    Yes, I think it is a moral choice... and more than that, it is a wager. There is no way to know what if any great discoveries will come tomorrow, and we don't know if tomorrow's discoveries will ultimately be beneficial or detrimental to humanity. But I think the true motivation for research is essential, not logical. The desire for discovery is a function of our nature.
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