Why we need ‘useless’ knowledge

by: Mohamad Firdaus Raih

The research Nur Adlyka Annuar (sitting from left) and her colleagues are doing is curiosity driven and therefore, it is considered as basic research

ON April 4, Nur Adlyka Annuar, an astronomy PhD candidate at Durham University, received a congratulatory letter from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak for her part in the discovery of a supermassive black hole. Like many other Malaysians, I take pride in her achievement and wish her the best for the future. I am not going to elaborate on the subject of black holes, but I would like to centre our discussion on the nature of Adlyka’s topic of study.

In Malaysia, research being carried out in the universities and research institutes can generally be divided into fundamental or basic research, and applied research. So what are the differences between these two streams of research?

Basic research, as the name implies, is the acquisition of knowledge about the fundamental workings of our natural world. It aims to answer questions that are usually curiosity driven, such as, “Why is our sky blue?; How do we get a disease?; What are those twinkling lights we see in the night sky?; Why/How does a firefly flash/glow?; How does the body turn food into energy?” and others like it. The questions that can stem from our curiosity are perhaps endless and there will always be new questions as we understand new things.

Applied research on the other hand takes on the knowledge that is acquired from basic research and develops that knowledge into a useful application such as a technology or a technique. But let’s not dwell on definitions and instead look at some real-world examples.

Nur Adlyka’s research into black holes appears to have no apparent use except in terms of knowledge value — so now you know that there is a huge black hole a few million light years away. Many of us are not even concerned with what goes on in our own neighbourhoods, this makes a place that is not even reachable within our lifetime as hardly something that would spark our interest. The research Adlyka and her colleagues are doing is curiosity driven and therefore it is considered as basic research. Nevertheless, such knowledge may have uses that we may not yet be aware of.

The most expensive scientific infrastructure (I dare not call it an instrument) ever constructed, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), basically just accelerates very, very small objects of matter called particles and crashes them into each other in order to see what happens. Again, there appears to be nothing that can be gained commercially in return for the tens of billions of dollars invested in the LHC except furthering our understanding of the world around us. But yet, developed nations and funding agencies are spending millions and billions of dollars to support fundamental research that has no apparent use.

One of my favourite stories on basic research and applied research is the one about the discovery of antibiotics. Sir Alexander Fleming, the biologist who is credited with the discovery of antibiotics, observed that bacteria he was trying to culture were not able to grow near a mould that had contaminated his culture plates. He translated this to mean that the mould was producing something that was preventing bacterial growth. However, it was Lord Howard Florey and Sir Ernst Chain who took that knowledge and developed it into the application of antibiotics that we know of today. All three were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945.

Another story that has had a large impact on humankind is the discovery of Röntgen radiation. Wilhelm Röntgen was the first winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901. He was experimenting with vacuum tubes when he chanced upon the discovery of the rays named after him. A few weeks after his discovery of the mysterious rays emanating from the vacuum tubes, he was able to take a photograph using them. The photograph was that of his wife’s hand, or specifically, an image of the bones in his wife’s hand. Not knowing what these rays were, he had named them X-rays, the X in reference to it being something unknown. X-rays and antibiotics have probably saved hundreds of millions of lives since their first use in medicine until the present day.

Basic research contributes to the foundation of our collective knowledge as a species.

Despite what may seem like a waste of funds, knowledge from basic research is the cornerstone that has enabled numerous disruptive innovations that we use in our daily lives. However, is our approach to science and research funding in Malaysia duly considering the impact that fundamental research can bring forth? Or are we arrogant enough to think that we can know which knowledge is going to be useless and which ones will be useful and thus only fund those that will be of perceived future use?

I do not disagree that applied research is necessary. The story about the discovery and following deployment of antibiotics for treating bacterial infections clearly demonstrates how applied research is necessary to capitalise on the fundamental knowledge gained from basic research. But are we just focusing too much on applied research for what we think are quick return of investments for R&D?

Malaysia is definitely not lacking in the talent to carry out world class research, even in areas of basic research that are at the boundaries and forefront of human knowledge. Adlyka and many others like her are testament to this fact. It is our responsibility as Malaysians to support such endeavours, be it in the financial sense or in the form of infrastructure and moral support. Basic research has the potential to bring pride and riches to the nation. But we must first have the humility to accept how little we know and as a result, strive to understand more.

The Nobel laureate and physicist Richard Feynman once wrote on a blackboard: “What I cannot create, I do not understand”. It is time for us to want to understand, and from there we can hope to create great and wonderful things. It is from basic research that we can bring about revolutionary innovation. We must aim to create new machines and applications, and not forever be doomed to incrementally make improvements to an old machine.

The writer is a bioinformatician and molecular biologist with the Faculty of Science and Technology and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Systems Biology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Source: NSTonline (12th April 2017)


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