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Why you should not regret doing basic science

Elaine Lima de Souza about the importance of basic science.

I never doubted the relevance of basic science for technological and scientific development until my career transition began. Applying for jobs, I encountered advertisements for vacancies, where it was stated that experience in applied sciences was required.

It made me think about why it should matter. I observed that indeed, all of the glory is on applied science, and I thought that perhaps I was missing something in my career. The reality is that applied science gets all of the recognition and also the priority for financial investments.

In 1980, Stephen Stigler, statistics professor at the University of Chicago, described Stigler's law of eponymy. His law states that no original discoverer has his name in its scientific discovery. Even earlier, in 1903, Mark Twain, made an interesting observation: "It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit, and we forget the others". Thus those applying the science will receive the glory and not the knowledge creators.

Because of this societal preference of applied science over basic science, many scientists, especially those in a career transition to the industry, may feel a sense of regret if they had pursued basic science.

How are basic and applied sciences understood? Basic science leads to a better understanding of natural phenomena; its primary purpose is to generate knowledge, and it cannot directly translate to a solution, but it can be part of a future solution. On the other hand, applied science is focused on the prompt application of the knowledge, to study something that can impact people’s lives directly—the societal contribution of the research is more evident than with basic research.

Thus, I started to think that if I had explored a more applied science it could have helped me to find a job in the industry faster or even helped me to find investments to continue with my research in academia. As most academic research is basic research, society often does not understand the value of it. A Ph.D. student working on basic science can be perceived as a student that is just taking too long to find a job, but actually most people do not understand what they are studying. Further, as the government is a reflex of its society, the public investment in academic research is getting less relevant in many countries, especially the developing ones.

I want to challenge this mindset: let’s explore here why all science matters and why you should not regret doing basic science. If we think that all science starts with a question, based on observation, or a clear societal issue, we understand better that every piece in science matters.

I see science as a jigsaw puzzle, and when it is completed, it can bring solutions for societal issues. Each piece of this puzzle is a piece of knowledge, basic knowledge.

Applied science will assemble those pieces. But it is the basic science that will create all the pieces of this puzzle. There is no puzzle without pieces.

In my opinion, industry and academia should work together to help society: whether on basic or applied research. An academic culture of only “creating knowledge” is not enough; it is necessary to assemble the puzzle too. No one should regret doing basic science—everything has value for innovation!

By Elaine Lima de Souza


About the author

Elaine Lima De Souza

Elaine Lima de Souza, Ph.D., Content Creator

For ten years, I dedicated myself to scientific research. I have a Ph.D. in biosciences from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and worked three years as a postdoctoral researcher at Erasmus Medical Center in The Netherlands. I worked with rare diseases and molecular diagnostics from thyroid physiology to cancer. I’m an award-winning scientist with 14 international peer-review publications. I have expanded my knowledge related to innovation and entrepreneurship and gained insights from the Dutch business and startup ecosystem in biosciences. Moreover, I’m passionate about reading fiction and non-fiction books and sharing ideas. All of my articles reflect my personal views.

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