As a species, physicists baffle me. To my meager understanding, Physics – the study of matter, energy and the relationship between them – is the most fundamental of the natural sciences. Physics elucidates the properties of matter at level of the most basic structural units, and therefore, must necessarily underlie our understanding of the other branches of the natural sciences, namely, chemistry and biology. Therefore, I have always assumed – perhaps naïvely – the physicists’ understanding of the natural world is firmly rooted in empiricism, in critical analysis of observed data – in other words, in the conscientious application of the Scientific Method.
Today’s Nature Middle East published an interesting and thought-provoking commentary from Dr. Nidhal Guessoum, an astrophysicist and professor of physics at the American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, entitled: Does the Arab world (not) need basic science?
The accompanying blurb nicely summarizes the main argument in the commentary.
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.
Dr. Guessoum starts by defining what he considers basic vis-à-vis applied research. For the basic research, he refers – and justly in my opinion – to the French description thereof:
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.
This definition of Basic Sciences is profoundly important, because it accepts the premises that empirical, evidence-driven scientific research is the only real way available to humanity for exploring, learning about, and understanding nature in all its glory and the laws that govern the natural phenomena. In fact, it would not be stretching a point to consider that Basic Sciences research is fundamentally grounded in rationality.
In contrast, Applied Sciences research – what Dr. Guessoum also refers to as ‘development research’ – is done with the express purpose of testing and developing an idea into a tangible product, such as a particular technology, that can be put to good use in the society.
While acknowledging the need for continued support of applied research, Dr. Guessoum makes a strong argument for basic research. He discusses the primary defence of basic research, noting that “… few innovations are made without prior discoveries in fundamental science.” In addition, he makes a more fundamental appeal, saying:
I believe that science is not solely, or even primarily, for improving lifestyles: it is for human progress. We humans have been blessed with reason, intelligence, and the growing capacity to control our environment. With this comes the responsibility of both stewardship (khilafah in Arabic) and proper moral behavior and spiritual attitude (amanah).
This is a deeply recondite statement; in fact, I can find no stronger argument for the support of basic sciences, the foundational concept being reason and application thereof, in order to find answers about everything around us, some of which concern us directly and/or immediately, while others provide a framework for future understanding.
Dr. Guessoum goes on to cite some national and international statistics, emphasizing the observation that unless “countries… do not have a strong basic science program in both education and discovery… their scientific and intellectual progress will remain modest” – however much they “…pursue ‘research and development’”. He cites instances of poor allocation of funding for science in the Arab world, noting the inordinate emphasis placed on “applied”, “innovation”, and “technology” in existing Arab scientific literature, as well as amongst the primary funding agencies, and calls for an attitudinal balance, indicating – again, justly –
… encouragement of basic science is a must if we want to produce enlightened, informed, and well-educated communities, as well as robust home-grown socio-economic development. Basic research is difficult to control and direct; outcomes are often unexpected, and even results which initially seem devoid of potential can later yield important applications. Furthermore, for research to truly be productive, the scientists must feel free to explore all kinds of paths and ideas.
Intriguingly, Dr. Guessoum seemed to take pains to emphasize that he was, in fact, “…not calling for basic research to be given priority in funding or support in the Arab world.” – to which my question is: why on earth not? Perhaps there are political realities in the Arab world that I am not aware of, but given all the arguments Dr. Guessoum made favoring basic research, anything else would seem counter-intuitive, and indeed, counter-productive in the long run.
What struck a particular chord with me about Dr. Guessoum’s commentary is that what is true for the Arab world is true for the rest of the world, too, especially the developing countries, such as mine, i.e. India – a fact that often remains poorly understood. In 2003, the vice-Chairman of one of the country’s premier funding agencies, The University Grants Commission, acknowledged that “No cutting-edge technology will emerge without the background knowledge in basic sciences. So the interface areas of knowledge in physics, chemistry and biological sciences need to be strengthened at the universities” and called for the allocation of at least 2% of India’s GDP for basic research in science and technology. In 2005, the Ministry of Human Resource Development of the Government of India set up a Task Force for basic sciences, which recommended several pro-basic science changes, including that “…every institution of higher learning should earmark 5% of its non-plan budget for the furtherance of research in Basic Sciences” (PDF). And yet, according to official statistics in 2011, the investment in the field of Scientific Research & Development in the country remained at less than 1% of GDP. So, the problem of underfunding (and possibly low appreciation) of basic sciences is by no means restricted to the Arab world.
However, in the context of the social climate in the Arab world, there is another significant question that Dr. Guessoum seems to have skirted across, using grandiloquent, but rather vague, terms. He says:
As Arabs, contributing to human civilization in basic sciences will make our lives meaningful and comfort us in our quest to be morally responsible stewards of Earth.
Will the good doctor care to answer an uncomfortable question about the role religion plays in his region’s societies, and how far that fact influences the funding decisions he laments about? I submit that research in applied science and technology most often does not have to answer fundamental questions about life, nature and natural phenomenon, minimizing the chances of any intersection with the territories claimed by religion and religious philosophies, whereas questions in basic science often impinge upon the same areas.
Consider, for example, the evolution of human beings from less complex organisms; without the fundamental understanding of this evolutionary heritage, it is impossible to use the modern technological tools, such as molecular genetics, to probe the integral mechanisms underlying core biological processes. It is also an area about which a multitude of religions make grandiose claims that have been contradicted and disproven by empirical evidence gathered by basic science research. Can this be a/the pivotal reason for the devoutly religious (from all appearances) Arab world to consciously shy away from funding basic sciences?
As a testament to humankind’s everlasting quest for knowledge and understanding of the self, a number of scientific studies in the recent times have examined the elusive relationship between the human brain and that fountainhead of human emotion and passion, namely, Religion. There have been studies on neurological correlates of religious experiences and spiritual practices, such as meditation and prayer; many studies have looked at both acute and chronic effects of such practices in relation to brain function. A recent study along the same lines, published by Owen et al. of Duke University, in PLoS One on March 30, 2011, has attempted to link religious factors with changes in a specific brain region, the hippocampus, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques.