Dear Prof. Chalfie
I am a biophysics graduate student at UC Berkeley who loves molecules. I have spent my scientific life studying the shapes of large biological molecules like proteins, with a particular focus on their propensity to physically interact with one another in order to carry out the jobs that keep cells alive. Although there are potential applications of my research to human health, I have primarily been motivated by pure curiosity and the desire to figure out how life works. Nevertheless, an eye towards therapeutics seems prudent, as almost all funding agencies have the explicit mission of supporting research with concrete benefits to society. As NIH director Francis Collins summed it up to the New York Times, “We’re not the National Institutes of Basic Sciences. We’re the National Institutes of Health.” Despite such admonishments, it seems to me that many scientists merely pay lip service to the broader impacts of their work in grant applications; although benefits to humankind would be nice, in their hearts, they simply want to probe nature’s mysteries.
The tension between science for society and science for its own sake played out vividly on stage at this year’s Lindau Meeting. The organizers appeared squarely on the side of science for society. The declared theme of the meeting was global health, and many of the sessions focused on improving health care in the developing world. Young researchers who worked on in this area were held up as examples, participating in a panel discussion with Bill Gates. Nobel laureate Peter Agre played a prominent role in many events, speaking passionately about his personal experience with the devastating effects of malaria in Africa and strongly encouraging the audience to take up the gauntlet of finding a cure.
However, the messages of many of the other laureates did not mesh so nicely with the theme. Most claimed that they were motivated simply by the intellectual joy of their work, and in fact that this joy is the key factor in a productive and happy career. Moreover, many emphasized that they had made their prize-winning discoveries quite by accident, and that pursuing research too rigidly directed towards a specific goal was not the path to truly outstanding discoveries. Sir Harold Kroto was a particularly vocal advocate of this perspective, highlighting that many of the most revolutionary technologies were derived from basic science in seemingly completely unrelated fields. He held up the example of the laser, which has become an invaluable tool in many branches of medicine.
On a recent visit to my undergraduate advisor a few months before the conference, discussing my not-so-incredibly distant graduation, he popped the question, “So, have you picked a biological problem to work on yet?” I didn’t have a good answer for him. I feel an increasing desire to perform research that is both fundamentally exciting to me and has a (relatively) decent chance of creating tangible benefits to society. I am wondering if you have grappled with this challenge, and if you have any advice to offer.