UBC Reports: Pure research

There seems to be a lot of posts on this blog about UBC recently, but yeah, if I am gonna hang out here for 5 years, I better love it. So you should too!

The recent issue of UBC Reports has two very interesting articles. The first one is a justification of pure research, or research solely for the sake of knowledge. Or, to borrow a metaphor used in the article, researches that are like solving a puzzle. Children don’t solve puzzles to win money or the Nobel Prize. They do it because they enjoy it. (At least the nerdy ones like me.)


This may be read in a few different lights. Firstly, it may be simply an article that celebrates pure research as it is, and encourages students who may otherwise shy away from what is often perceived as dry, difficult, and fruitless.

Secondly, it can be seen as a justification of researchers doing what they do, which may be only understandable or understanding-worthy for other researchers doing the same things that they are doing. More passionately, you can hear these researchers say: “What do you mean ‘get a real job’ and ‘contribute to the society’? Read this, and you’ll thank us for what we do!”

But what comes to my mind, was an old debate topic: is knowledge intrinsically good? Or, put in another way, should the pursuit of knowledge be constrained in some ways?

Think about research that could lead to weaponry, environmental destruction, and moral uprooting. And how about that physics experiment that had a chance, however slim, to wipe out the entire universe?

How about resurrecting extinct viruses that could wipe out millions of lives if anything goes amiss?

And almost always, this turns up: well, relativity led to the development of the atomic bomb, but is nuclear physics bad? Without it, power-generating technology that is increasingly important would not be developed, space travel would be impossible, and modern physics would be missing an arm and a leg.

In Should’ve, a line caught my attention and I paraphrase: “you scientists are so proud when your research leads to something good, and yet when it leads to something terrible, you just say ‘oh, my research fell into bad hands,” and walk away.”

Of course, if we restrict pure research, science will become a money-making tool run by corporations. And since we dive so deeply into our highly specialized field, we often don’t know what the result of our research would be. Who knows what the characterization of a specific receptors on a specific cell type in a specific strain of mice would lead to? A publication in a good journal is all I would hope for.

This is how science runs. “I’m so interested in this, I am going to spend as much time as it takes to figure it out, just for the joy of it!” may happen, but more likely, “I hope this goes well, I need this for my grant/thesis/publication/med school application/start-up/pipeline” is what goes through our mind. Neither mentality covers the question of whether this research is beneficial or ethical, because 1) we believe in “hidden benefits” as described in UBC Report, and 2) we believe our ethics committee will take care of the ethics stuff.

((I will write about the 2nd article later, maybe))


2 thoughts on “UBC Reports: Pure research

  1. this reminds me of something I read about chaos theory and Jurassic Park on someone’s blog I randomly read some time ago(blogs make you knowledgeable?! apparently XD) this is a quote from the Jurassic park

    Scientists and morality– No. I’ll tell you the problem with engineers and scientists. Scientists have an elaborate line of bullshit about how they are seeking to know the truth about nature. Which is true, but that’s not what drives them. Nobody is driven by abstractions like ‘seeking truth.’

    Scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment. So they are focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something. They conveniently define such considerations as pointless. If they don’t do it, someone else will. Discovery, they believe is inevitable. So they just try to do it first. That’s the game in science. Even pure scientific discovery is an aggressive, penetrative act. It takes big equipment, and it literally changes the world afterward. Particle accelerators scar the land, and leave radioactive byproducts. Astronauts leave trash on the moon. There is always some proof that scientists were there, making their discoveries. Discovery is always a rape of the natural world. Always.

    The scientists want it that way. They have to stick their instruments in. They have to leave their mark. They can’t just watch. They can’t just appreciate. They can’t just fit into the natural order. They have to make something unnatural happen. That is the scientist’s job, and now we have whole societies that try to be scientific. (pp 284-85)

    burn! but I have to say, most parts I really can’t agree more to what he said. he puts it well, and with a bang

    Now, now. I agree that science is goal-driven and not ethics-driven, but I quite strongly disagree with the messages that imply we drop science altogether. Somehow, “natural” is good, and “unnatural” is bad. Well, what’s natural? Is living in a house natural? Electricity? Heat? Was it more natural back in the stone age? I don’t know, those people artificially sharpened stones, which is far from “natural”.

    If we define “unnatural” as man-made, and if we want to oppose unnatural things, then hooray! Let’s go extinct. If we define “natural” as the things that are good, then this is a pointless tautology.

    Also, is internet a good thing? It has sped up the sharing of human knowledge infinitely, but it has also spread messages of hate and despair. Is pen and paper a good thing? Without them, there would be no Shakespeare, no Beethoven, but there won’t be Hitler’s Mein Kamf either.

    Or, maybe we can say: “let’s keep things the way they are now, and not mess around with nature further.” Well, ok. Just make sure we don’t say this too early, cuz there are lots of goodies coming still (and badies too).

  2. whoops, did I set off something? XD totally didn’t mean to
    I don’t think the message is to “drop science”, I think it’s just stating a fact
    dropping science altogehter? impossible
    it’s like saying, let’s stop time, or, let’s stop evolution, or, let’s stop ourselves from thinking

    interestingly, the human race is kind of on a crash course that we are right now so desperatly trying to save ourselves from
    if we want to oppose unnatural things, we go extinct
    but if we keep on going with the unnatural things, oops, we go extinct too
    extreme of anything is pointless and never brings anything good
    it’s a fine balance, and we are having trouble to find it is all

    Haha… no la, if my words sounded stronger than I intended, I was just responding to the passage, not to you. I don’t believe that the pursuit of knowledge good or justified in itself, but I don’t believe in natural = good either. Because it’s kinda hypocritical to first equate “man-make” with “unnatural”, and then make anti-science claims like “They can’t just appreciate. They can’t just fit into the natural order. They have to make something unnatural happen.”

    But I agree with you that neither extreme is right. But as a pessimist, I would also say that finding the right balance is impossible. We will have to trial and err on our path of progress, and we can never reduce the risk of catastrophe to zero.

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