Should research balance curiosity with societal impact?
Yvonne Vercoulen, Assistant Professor at the Center for Molecular Medicine in the University Medical Center Utrecht, discusses the importance of curiosity-driven, fundamental research in the first blog of the Utrecht Young Academy.
"Science = asking questions. Scientists want to figure out how things work. I only learned recently that I used to drive my sister mad by continuously asking: 'Why?'. I guess it is only natural that I turned ‘asking why’ into my profession now.
Foremost, I want to understand what happens in our bodies when our primary defense, the immune cells, go awry. As a PhD student, I joined a lab headed by an inspirational clinician-scientist who investigated severe autoimmune disease in children, as I wanted to make a difference for these patients. We discovered fundamental mechanisms contributing to disease, which did not lead to a direct change in the clinic, but definitely moved the clinical and translational research field forward.
Curiosity-driven research has the potential to move a field forward with giant steps.
My journey continued going back and forth between clinical questions with potential societal impact, and curiosity-driven fundamental questions. Combining them works synergistically: my lab has developed a method to identify each of the many different cells forming human tissue in 40-colour images, and we are now directing this method towards optimization of a novel immune therapy for cancer. I believe this balance is vital in general in science, since curiosity-driven research has the potential to move a field forward with giant steps, whilst allowing quick translation towards societal impact for our fundamental discoveries.
Recently, the EU decided to limit budgets for curiosity-driven research, with an estimated loss for the Dutch community of hundreds of millions euros. This decision is counterintuitive, since every euro invested is estimated to gain eightfold return.
We need curiosity-driven science to set the ground and maintain required resources for quick responses in crisis situations.
Moreover, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has shown the power of curiosity-driven science: I am seriously impressed by the quick response of the scientific community to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many research groups, with and without previous experience in (corona)virus research, redirected their resources and investigated how the virus is transmitted, its effects on health and society, and potential treatments. Researchers from many different disciplines, such as genetics, immunology, virology, biochemistry, epidemiology, economics, sociology, etc., shared resources to move forward quickly, as demanded by a pressing societal problem.
This crisis shows that:
- We need curiosity-driven science to set the ground and maintain required resources for quick responses in crisis situations.
- It is impossible to predict which knowledge or project will have the largest societal impact in the future.
In the Netherlands, the balance of funding has tipped towards societal impact, or ‘strategic research’. The Weckhuysen report showed the funding-ratio of strategic:curiosity-driven research currently is 2:1. I am glad that the committee recommends this balance gets restored to 1:1 by increasing the budget for curiosity-driven research. This promising advice is much needed to keep our science community productive and valuable for society and free to ask and tackle different types of questions."