Each year, the announcement of the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics, and Physiology and Medicine creates an opportunity for scientists to capitalize on the (temporary) public interest and lobby for increased science funding. If scientists at US institutions essentially sweep the prizes (and this year is one of those), scientists in other countries wail, gnash their teeth, and exhort their governments to increase funding. If the US does not dominate the prizes, American academia howls about lost prestige and the inevitable loss of economic competitiveness that will come back to bite administrations if research funding does not increase. When, in years like this one, the science prizes are awarded for work tending towards the more basic end of the research spectrum, we hear calls to invest in undirected, unfettered, blue skies research – because we just never know when something is going to turn out to be interesting.
Really, is this true? Or do such statements reflect part of the mythology science likes to feed funders and the public?
I propose that the prizes this year were awarded to work done:
1) A long time ago (Physics) at an institution known to allow unfettered research – but was the scope of the work performed at Bell Labs completely undirected? A review of much of the most celebrated work at Bell Labs indicates a shared theme – how can information be packaged and transmitted. It also took a lot of post-discovery research to make digital images commercially viable.
2) Over time (Physiology and Medicine and Chemistry) – during which much interest has been generated and many labs have contributed beyond the initial discoveries. Rather than a surprise, it has been anticipated that the topics of telomerase and ribosomes would eventually garner Nobels. It has and will take much work and investment to translate these basic findings into applications.
To point out that Nobel prizes often recognize original contributions that then take the work of many other individuals to expand on and develop does not in any way detract from the excitement in and importance of the work lauded. But it does raise the question of whether these prizes provide justification for investing in basic science research preferentially? Rather, should it not be the entire enterprise of research and entrepreneurship that should be celebrated and supported? How many basic research findings DO NOT win prizes, jumpstart new fields of research, or yield new products? How much undirected, unfettered basic science research is simply gray, rather than blue, skies – uninteresting, derivative, and unimportant?
Ah, we just never know.