The Importance of Basic Research

This is science's newest Golden Age. Young people today are inspired by generational heroes like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg that were filled in the relative recent past by the likes of Michael Jordan and Mick Jagger. The fact that today's students can dream of emulating role models who achieved their status using their minds and curiosity is a good thing.

However, there is one significant drawback. The rock star status of today's scientific celebrities encourages aspiring scientists to focus on the retail possibilities that can result in fast fame and wealth. While understandable, this unwittingly neglects a crucial part of the scientific equation -- basic research.

For example, let's look at the way the music industry has changed over the last decade or so. Instead of going to a record story, most people now get their music electronically via MP3 files through an online store like iTunes, and download it to portable MP3 players like iPods. Each of these products -- MP3s, iTunes and iPods -- was created to fill a specific commercial void. Scientists identified a need and developed a product. That is applied research.

But these would not exist if not for the anonymous scientists at the Swiss laboratory CERN whose research led to the development of the internet, or the no-name physicists in the 1920s whose abstract discoveries in electronics and sub-particles paved the way for today's computers. These unheralded breakthroughs are products of basic research.

Basic research is the foundation on which applied research is built, and feeds the pipeline for the products and services we consume. But too few of today's and tomorrow's scientists are showing interest in laboring unknown in the back labs of basic research. The money and the notoriety, it seems, comes from advancements championed through applied research.

Compounding the problem are the funders. America's top companies used to provide significant dollars to basic research, recognizing it is a perquisite for innovation that led to viable commercial products, among them the transistor, nylon and Teflon. But basic research is expensive, time consuming and there are no guarantees of a billion-dollar breakthrough. Without the robust support of private companies like The Bell Labs and Dupont, the home grown pipeline begins to run dry. The financial pressure then falls squarely on government funding and university research. When public dollars are being used, there is frequent pressure to focus on applied research, rather than appropriate revenues for experimentation with no known conclusion. Earlier this week, an advisory panel recommended to federal agencies shutting down the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, home of last remaining particle collider in the U.S, because of tight budgets. The collider smashes gold ions and protons together, which enables scientists to study the formation of the universe. Research like this is too important to be penny foolish.

On a recent trip to Israel, I met with the head of the Weizmann Institute of Science, the country's leading research institution. Their students and fellows focus almost exclusively on basic research. Weizmann is Israel's smallest university, yet it is one of the top five highest earning institutions in the world because of its patents and their subsequent commercialization.

The United States, and its stable of excellent colleges and universities, needs to learn from the Weizmann model. We know basic research is valuable. Weizmann shows us it can be profitable, too.

One of my role models is Mary-Claire King. A researcher who spent nearly 20 years studying breast cancer, she faced a barrage of criticism for wasting time and money. Eventually she discovered the breast cancer gene, which has helped tens of millions of people survive breast cancer. Her stubbornness and perseverance in basic research saved lives and resulted in billions of dollars in direct and indirect economic impact.

We need more scientists like Mary-Claire King. Yet it is doubtful many students who are planning on careers in science have heard of her or are planning to emulate her. But she, and countless anonymous basic researchers, unquestionably had as great an impact on their future careers as Jobs and Zuckerberg and the other rock stars they one day hope to follow.

Karen Kashmanian Oates is the Dean of Arts & Sciences at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.