Yesterday, the 3rd World Laureates Forum (WLF) was concluded in Shanghai. At the forum, several Chinese and foreign scientists emphasized the importance of basic science of one accord.
Ryoji Noyori, 2001 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, said that governments and the scientific community need to strongly encourage young people to love basic subjects.
Wang Yifang, Member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Director of the Institute of High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, believed that basic science is related to the common destiny of all mankind. She hoped to enhance the mining of basic science knowledge and strengthen basic scientific research with scientists from all over the world.
Didier Queloz, 2019 Nobel Laureate in Physics, emphasized that science knows no borders, and that it’s imperative to make sufficient investment in cultivating basic science talents, which should start with early education.
Here come the questions: What is basic science? What are its characteristics? Why do the “most intelligent brains” repeatedly emphasize the importance of basic science?
What is basic science?
Basic science takes natural phenomena and forms of material motion as research objects, and explores the science of the laws of nature, including seven basic disciplines, namely mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, earth science, logic, and their branches and marginal disciplines.
As for the definition of basic science, the famous physicist Tsung-Dao Lee once made a vivid metaphor. He believed that although all phenomena in the nature seem very complicated, they have some basic principles. As long as we can grasp the most basic principles, we can find the control gear.
Science pays attention to causalities, and various “effects” in the nature result from different “causes”. Basic science is like the “control gear” of the research on causes and effects in the nature. Starting from basic science as the “control gear” will enable us to easily solve other problems.
Why is basic science so important?
First of all, basic science is the source of innovation. The CAS member Zhu Rixiang once took China’s geoscience research as an example. In the 1940s, the academic circle believed that oil and natural gas only existed in oceanic sediments, but Chinese scientists proposed that oil and natural gas might also be found in terrestrial sediments after studying China’s geological conditions, and put forward the famous “terrestrial facies of petroleum”. Under the guidance of the theory, the Daqing Oil Field came into being after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Yoshinori Ohsumi, 2016 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, also said that when he first started the research on autophagy, he was not sure that autophagy had something to do with cancer and human lifespan. The research results were gradually made with the progress in basic scientific research. Therefore, he believed that basic science is very important.
Second, basic science is of great significance to applied science and the production market. Throughout history, basic scientific research results ranging from the special theory of relativity proposed by from Einstein in 1905, to quantum mechanics discovered by Heisenberg and Schrödinger, and quantum statistics put forward by Fermi and Paul, had laid a important foundation for technologies such as nuclear energy, lasers, semiconductors, superconductors, supercomputers and networks.
Currently, the internet that everyone is very familiar with has made immeasurable contributions to the future development of human civilization, but I am afraid that few people know that the internet technology is derived from the basic scientific research of high-energy physics less than 30 years ago.
It can be said that without the foundation laid by basic science at first, there wouldn’t be advanced scientific achievements.
Finally, only by valuing basic scientific research can we forever maintain the ability of independent innovation.
The famous physicist Tsung-Dao Lee believes that to effectively carry out basic scientific research, it is necessary to understand the law of scientific development. Scientific research is like ocean waves rising one by one. When a wave reaches its peak, it has to fall next. Then a new wave will rise again. Likewise, in order to pursue development, a country needs to find its new wave, figure out where it starts, and seize the golden opportunities before it reaches the peak or even when it just starts.
The key to seizing opportunities in the beginning is to strengthen basic scientific research and discover its new laws.
The biggest feature of basic science: slow progress
Generally speaking, basic research is characterized by long-term efforts, complexity and unpredictability. Sometimes it may take ten years, a hundred years or even longer to be “useful”.
For example, it was not until 10 years after its inception that the mathematical theory proposed by Allan Cormack, a mathematician and 1979 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, sparked a revolution in the medical field.
However, Japan began to attach more importance to basic scientific research decades ago, thus making such remarkable achievements as producing 19 Nobel laureates in the 21st century. Japan’s status today as a manufacturing power has also benefited from the continuous emphasis placed on basic scientific research over the decades.
In addition, since a solid mass foundation is to a large extent the prerequisite for achievements in basic science, sufficient talent reserves are the key.
Therefore, in the planning of basic scientific development, the most important part is talent training. The major scientific discoveries of the 20th century were basically made by a group of newcomers and new scientists in their 20s, 30s, or nearly 40 years old, which is a quite clear rule.
In the view of Eric Maskin, Recipient of Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, the key to basic scientific research is to give researchers as much freedom as possible, instead of intervening in and interfering with their research. In particular, young researchers should given enough independence.
Wang Xiujie, Researcher of the Institute of Genetic and Developmental Biology at China Academy of Sciences, once said that basic scientific research generally has a long cycle with uncertain factors and slow results. However, basic scientific researchers need to make money to support their families. Those who are willing to endure the loneliness and embark on basic scientific research should be given more respect and kindness.
However, the famous physicist Tsung-Dao Lee believes that it’s impossible to conduct basic scientific research without money, but what matters more are the spirit of dedication, an earnest, moral attitude towards scientific research. In the last century, scientists didn’t conduct the research on light and heat for money. If they did, they would not have discovered the basic laws of light and heat.
To sum up, when a country reaches a certain stage of development, basic scientific research will inevitably become necessary. The strength of basic scientific research often determines the country’s innovation abilities. From this perspective, it seems that the importance of basic science cannot be overemphasized.
1. Nobel Laureate Levitt: The Pandemic Brought More Harm to Young People and They Should Be Encouraged to Rebuild the World, The Paper, October 30, 2020
2. Experts’ Views on Basic Scientific Research, Guang Ming Daily, February 12, 2018
3. Cultivation of Basic Scientists, China Science Daily, October 22, 2019
4. Recipient of Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences: China Needs to Have Its Own Basic Research, Jiemian News, October 31, 2018
5. Tsung-Dao Lee: Basic Research in the New Century, Science Times, November 8, 2005