20 March 2014

This week I was on a radio program to talk about the new results from BICEP2, which found the first evidence of cosmic inflation. One of the questions I was asked was about the practical applications of this research. I gave some mealy-mouthed answer about how cutting-edge research can lead to new technologies we can’t even imagine, and gave an example of pure research leading to practical applications. But afterwards, the more I thought about it, the more it became clear that it was the wrong answer.

The question about the practical applications of pure scientific research is a common one. After all, if society is going to spend money on this kind of work, it has a right to demand some bang for its buck. Right?

There is some truth to that. There are times when particular areas of research are funded with a certain goal, such as targeted cancer research, or the development of higher density batteries. But some research don’t have a goal other than the discovery of new things, and they are a success even if they don’t discover what we expect. In the case of BICEP2, the project discovered real evidence of inflation. Even if the project produces no “practical” applications it has been a success, because we now know (assuming the results hold up) that inflation occurred in the early universe. Not just suspect because it would answer many questions about the big bang, but truly know. We have more knowledge about the universe than we had before, and that matters.

When someone asks about the practical implications, they take a small view of science. It ignores the fact that scientific knowledge is itself valuable. Science arises from the innate curiosity that is part of what makes us human. To do science well requires some of the best aspects of humanity: thoughtfulness, honesty, skepticism, creativity and equality. It requires us to work together, and it drives us to communicate ideas clearly. It is a human endeavor that inspires us to do better, and to be better.

It also requires us to look to the future, not just the past. We invest in scientific research now so that we can make scientific discoveries in the future. The knowledge we gain is not just valuable for us, but for future generations. By investing in science we are able to bequeath to our children a greater understanding of the universe than we were given. It’s true that pure scientific research will inevitably lead to new practical applications. It will give rise to new industries we can’t currently imagine. But that shouldn’t be the reason why we invest in science.

Science is a profound act of hope. It is what a hopeful and forward looking society does. And that’s why we should do it.