Does the Arab world (not) need basic science?
The Arab world cannot afford to ignore curiousity-driven basic research in favour of applied research, if the different states hope to produce an enlightened science culture at home.
When the British physicist J. J. Thomson won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for his discovery of the electron, he proposed a toast at a celebratory dinner reception: “To the electron – may it never be of any use to anybody.” He was proudly defending the then “obvious fact” that the electron was a discovery with no application, a “basic” type of research. A century later, not only does the electron have wide-ranging uses in our lives (from electronics to medicine), but its yearly “market value” is more than three trillion US dollars. In the same spirit, Margaret Thatcher once remarked that Michael Faraday (the 19th century British physicist whose basic research led James Maxwell to discover electromagnetic waves) was, in today’s market, worth more than the London Stock Exchange.
But before we debate the relative importance of basic research, particularly in the Arab context, we need to agree on what we mean by that. The French say “recherche fondamentale”, referring to any research around a foundational topic, be it in the laws and fabric of nature or in the essential components (particles, fields), interactions and phenomena that we need to scientifically understand and describe it. Some have described basic research as one where the outcome is unknown. Wernher von Braun, the German-American rocket scientist, boldly defined basic research as “what I am doing when I don’t know what I am doing.” In contrast, applied research, and more so development research, is the kind where the goal is defined in advance, such as producing a more efficient solar cell for example.
With this distinction, and noting that sometimes the areas overlap, one may legitimately ask: shouldn’t the Arab world, with its need for development across all aspects of its socio-economic life, focus on applied research? How could anyone argue for more support for basic research? Does it make sense for Arab governments to spend on such “useless” fields as astronomy, particle physics, archaeology, and the like? Is basic research a luxury that should only be afforded by rich and more developed nations?
Before I address the research and funding situation in the Arab world, let us review the main arguments for basic research, since the benefits of applied research are broadly accepted. The goal of research should be to promote socio-economic development, particularly for less advanced countries. Resources and policies should support that goal.
A common defense of basic research is that eventually it leads to applications. Indeed, few innovations are made without prior discoveries in fundamental science. In a famous study on biomedical sciences, one hundred specialists were asked to vote on the top 10 advances in cardiovascular medicine between 1945 and 1975. Once those ten advances were listed, the investigators reviewed 4,000 articles in search of the key scientific developments that led to those practical advances. Of those articles, 2,500 were found to be relevant, and 62% of these reported basic research.
“Twenty Arab countries are found to produce 6,000 books per year, compared to more than 100,000 in North America, for a comparable population.”
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