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))