Nobel laureate: nature best on science questions, not politicians

Nobel prizewinners speak out for curiosity-driven research at event in India

January 26, 2017
David Gross

Nobel laureates have banded together to defend the value of fundamental research during a “Nobel dialogue” event in India. 

Nine Nobel prizewinners were brought together to discuss a range of subjects, including the global impact of Indian research, at the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit 2017 in Gandhinagar.

A dialogue titled Discovery to Application featured five Nobel prizewinners – Ada Yonath, William Moerner, Hartmut Michel, David Gross and Serge Haroche – offering their opinions on the values of basic and applied research.

In India, as elsewhere, there is a growing divide between basic and applied research as researchers are increasingly asked to prove impact in return for funding.

Theoretical physicist David Gross, a recipient of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, gave an impassioned defence of basic research, arguing that beyond allowing us to control nature to our advantage, one of the greatest contributions of science was the understanding we have gained about ourselves. Curiosity, he said, is the best driver of discovery.

“Nature is much smarter than we are. Nature poses questions that are infinitely better questions than politicians, religious leaders or society [can pose],” he said. “Most important, it poses the questions: ‘What am I, how do I work?’ Whereas society poses the question: ‘How can you help me tomorrow?’

“If all you try to do is answer the immediate desires of politicians and society, what you will do is apply today’s technology, [or] yesterday’s try to solve these problems…but you will never have invented [anything],” Professor Gross continued.

He was supported by Ada Yonath, who recounted how her Nobel prizewinning research in structural biology – which has proved crucial for developing new antibiotics – “just came” from chasing big questions that caught her interest.

Speaking after Professor Gross, Serge Haroche – who shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics – criticised the short-term, linear approach to generating impact from research.

At the start of the 20th century, he said, we could not have forecast the invention of the laser or the computer because the fundamental science behind them – quantum mechanics – had not yet been understood; basic research has enormous and unpredictable outcomes, he concluded.

The Nobel laureates agreed that other restrictions existed to hold back innovation in science, such as “artificial” boundaries between subject areas that existed in universities, journals and the categories in which Nobel prizes are awarded.

Fostering a truly innovative environment, said chemical physicist William Moerner, requires scientists from different disciplines to work together on major challenges. Professor Gross encouraged Indian scientists to stop being a “minor collaborator” and to “take the lead” in such international research projects.

India, he said, “has an opportunity and a responsibility to become one of the great scientific powers and leaders in the world in all areas”, and the payoff would be “incredible”.

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