Noble research purposes: Blue skies for the people

Thu, Jul 11, 2013 by Guest Blogger

Chemistry, English, General

Hinnerk Feldwisch-Drentrup // A theme that ran like a common thread through most of the talks and interviews of last weeks meeting was the question how to balance applied and basic research. Most laureates stood up for blue sky research – like Harold Kroto, who reminded the audience that the laws of nature were first analyzed under the name of natural philosophy. And many of his colleagues also emphasized that the best ideas are created by curiosity and creativity – and not by pre-defined research agendas.

One example was 2012 physics laureate Serge Haroche, who tries to understand how nature behaves at a quantum level. Quantum computing, which could evolve as a practical application of his research, is also of interest for him, of course – however, he tries to avoid promising forthcoming applications, as he mentioned during the scientific breakfast on quantum information processing. Instead, he appreciates findings that arise and surprise on the way. A substantial number of Nobel prizes have been the result of serendipity – like most pharmaceutical discoveries during the 20th century. A fact that can hardly be brought into agreement with short-term research projects and the need to publish ever faster.

Steven Chu

Still, most laureates did not mention curiosity as their main motivation, but the prospect of useful applications of the research for society. Ada Yonath, who stuck to illuminate the structure of the ribosomes for 20 years, substantiated the benefit of her “pure basic research” by understanding the effect on antibiotics, which often block protein synthesis in cells by binding to ribosomes. Others, like Steven Chu and Mario Molina, concentrated on saving the environment as their most important incentive for science. Chu even understood climate change as the “mother of innovation”.


During their short career, many of the young researchers attending the meeting also struggled with the need to do research that is of direct benefit for society. Alisha Jones, graduate student at the University of Washington, wanted to study HIV2, a rare subtype of HIV that affects mostly patients from Africa. However, the funding bodies were not interested in this ‘irrelevant’ topic, such that she could not pursue this project further. Instead, she envies the Europeans for their ‘cool’ basic research projects like the particle accelerator and detectors at CERN.

Alisha Jones

A laureate who started his career with applied sciences is Robert Grubbs. Son of a farmer, during his Agricultural Chemistry major he analyzed cow droppings – this start into the world of science in the end led to a Nobel Prize in chemistry. However, for him the US achievements in science are also based on basic science, which was boosted after the Sputnik crisis after 1957 – the appropriation of the National Science Foundation was quadrupled within one year and again within the ten years after. According to Grubbs, this was also foundation for the US Nobel Prizes in the decades after. However, basic science is on decline again in the US – and both industry and most funding bodies request results after three years time.

On the bottom-line, the need to facilitate open, flexible research was shared between all participants. While many talks dealt with big societal problems like health, malnutrition, or climate change, the Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau was also a good place to be in order to see enthusiasm for pure scientific discoveries. Like Rudolph Marcus, 1992 laureate in chemistry phrased it: “This is how science goes – you see something new which isn’t understood and you get excited about it”. Or Ada Yonath, whose main message was “science is fun” – and who thanked the Weizmann Institute for supporting her long dream. Indeed, to allow scientific breakthroughs like those presented in Lindau society needs to encounter science with both trust and patience – and researchers have to be aware of their responsibility both as a scientist and a citizen.

Hinnerk Feldwisch-Dentrup

Hinnerk Feldwisch-Drentrup works as a science communicator both for the Project Management Agency Karlsruhe and as a freelance journalist. His interests include neuroscience, medicine, and bioethics. Additionally, current challenges to “good” sciences caught his interest, such that he participated on a discourse project ( where young natural and social scientists as well as journalists reflected problems and possible solutions.

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