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The Kismet of Basic Science

Those who argue that tinkering, rather than fundamental research, is the main source of technological innovation don't understand the nature of tinkering. Publicly funded basic science provides the fertile substrate from which technological breakthroughs often sprout.

Editors’ Note: August 4, 2017
Legitimate objections have been raised about the independence and integrity of the commentaries that Henry Miller has written for Project Syndicate and other outlets, in particular that Monsanto, rather than Miller, drafted some of them. Readers should be aware of this potential conflict of interest, which, had it been known at the time Miller’s commentaries were accepted, would have constituted grounds for rejecting them. 

STANFORD – The British journalist Matt Ridley is usually an insightful commenter on the philosophy and practice of science. But his assessment of the relationship between basic research and technological innovation – in short, that “‘basic science’ isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think”– misses the mark.

According to Ridley, “most technological breakthroughs come from technologists tinkering, not from researchers chasing hypotheses.” In support of his thesis, he offers several examples of “parallel instances” of invention: there were six separate inventors of the thermometer, three of the hypodermic needle, four of vaccination, five of the electric telegraph, and so on. What Ridley fails to recognize is that the theoretical underpinnings of these inventions may be the result of earlier basic research that had no particular intended practical application; that its significance was completely unsuspected when it was conducted.

After receiving the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Salvador Luria, my M.I.T. microbiology professor, joked about the difficulty of perceiving the significance of one’s own research findings. To all who had congratulated him on the award, Luria sent a cartoon that showed an elderly couple eating breakfast. The husband, reading the newspaper, exclaims, “Great Scott! I’ve been awarded the Nobel Prize for something I seem to have said, or done, or thought, in 1934!”

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