Sunday, April 20, 2014
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The Dilemma of Curiosity and Its Use

Albert Einstein once said, “I have no special gift, but I am passionately curious.” Certainly, Einstein was being tremendously modest. But, just as certainly, curiosity is a powerful driving force in scientific discovery. Indeed, along with talent and interest, as well as mathematical or other quantitative abilities, curiosity is a necessary characteristic of any successful scientist.

Curiosity betrays emotional passion. It is a state of being involuntarily gripped by something that is difficult to ward off and for which, since one cannot act otherwise, one is accountable only in a limited sense. We all come into the world curious, equipped with the psychological drive to explore the world and to expand the terrain that we think we master. It is no coincidence that a well-known book on developmental psychology bears the title The Scientist in the Crib, a work that traces the parallels between small children’s behavior and the processes and research strategies that are usual in science.

But the urge for knowledge that drives inborn curiosity to transcend given horizons does not remain uncurbed. Parents can tell many a tale about how, with the beginning of school, their children’s playful approach suddenly changes, as they must now focus on objects dictated by the curriculum. Likewise, however desirable its ability to produce the unexpected and unforeseeable, science today cannot claim that it is not accountable to society.

Curiosity is insatiable and, in research, it is inextricably tied to the unforeseeability of results. Research is an endless process, with a destination that no one can predict precisely. The more that unexpected results, brought forth by research in the laboratory, are a precondition for further innovations, the more pressure there is to bring the production of knowledge under control, to direct research in specific directions, and to tame scientific curiosity. But curiosity must not be limited too severely, lest science’s ability to produce new knowledge be lost.

This dilemma is at the center of many policy debates surrounding scientific research. To be sure, not everything that arouses scientific curiosity is controversial; in fact, most scientific research is not. Still, the dilemma is obvious in pioneering fields like biomedicine, nanotechnology, and neurosciences. Research in these areas sometimes meets with vehement rejection, for example, on religious grounds with respect to stem-cell research, or owing to fear with respect to the possibility of altering human identity.

Curiosity implies a certain immoderation, a certain necessary excess. That is precisely what makes it a passion: it is amoral and follows its own laws, which is why society insists on taming it in various ways. Private investment in research directs curiosity onto paths where new scientific breakthroughs promise high economic potential. Politicians expect research to function as a motor of economic growth. Ethics commissions want to establish limits on research, even if these require frequent re-negotiation. The demand for more democratic input, finally, also seeks to influence research priorities.

These considerations must be borne in all efforts to support basic research. In Europe, the establishment of the European Research Council (ERC) is entering a decisive phase, with crucial implications concerning the role we are prepared to concede to scientific curiosity. For the first time, support for basic research is being made possible on the EU level. Individual teams are to enter a pan-European competition to determine the best of the best, opening a free space for scientific curiosity and enabling the unforeseeable outcomes that are characteristic of cutting-edge research.

The dilemma – and it is a decisive one – is that today we cherish the passionate curiosity of an Albert Einstein. But we still want to control the unforeseeable consequences to which curiosity leads. The dilemma must be overcome by allowing curiosity to be protected and supported, while trying to capture those of its fruits that will benefit society. How we accomplish this must be continuously negotiated in the public sphere. Irreducible contradictions will remain, and therein lie the ambivalence that characterizes modern societies’ stance toward science.

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