T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net
For developing countries with limited funds for science, there is a perennial debate about whether to support basic science research — which lacks easily discernible social benefits — or applied science.
They could pay heed to Jules A. Hoffmann, who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Hoffmann began his science career driven by a curiosity to understand how the humble fruit fly avoided contracting fungal infections — that is, pure basic science. This led to the discovery of a group of cells that are key to ‘innate’ immune responses in humans, with implications for vaccines, infectious diseases and allergies.
“I would like to argue that our society should continue to support, to a significant extent, research which is purely based on curiosity, even in the absence of perspectives of applications at the time when the work is started,” Hoffmann told Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) delegates at the opening ceremony on Wednesday (11 July).
Hoffmann said that as he began his research career in the 1960s, he was fortunate to work during “blissful times”.
“We were not asked to indicate which milestones we wanted to provide within which timeframe, what applications we were hoping to generate, what networking we were planning to develop, which industrial partners we had contacted,” he added.
“There was a great confidence in science, and a global belief that, whatever the field and the questions, any new scientific knowledge would eventually have positive outcomes for society.”
Not so, anymore. As immense amounts of scientific knowledge have accumulated, science has become so complex “that most of our fellow citizens feel overwhelmed or lost,” Hoffmann said.
He went on to observe that although science still enjoys a relatively positive image with the general public, a significantly large and vocal group of citizens have developed a marked level of distrust towards scientific research — particularly in Europe — in areas such as genetically modified crops, vaccinations, stem cell research and electromagnetic waves.
Regaining the trust of these opponents will not be easy, Hoffman says. He sees a role for the media to help garner public interest in science, while at same time not overselling research results, “which would only feed the distrust.”
This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.