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In praise of “pure research”, and its significance for the understanding of ways and reasons to improve environment, health and quality of life

Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been able to discover, trial, produce and administer effective vaccines to hundreds of millions of people in a very short time – an immense scientific, medical, financial and business endeavour, in terms of logistics, politics and policies, too. And also substantial evidence of the positive impact that international collaboration and an approach to science and health conceived as global “common goods” can have. This is a path we should keep on following.

Of course, it’s been a difficult, controversial process, rife with contradictions, dark undertones, conflicts involving different political and economic interests. Yet, despite all this, we can now acknowledge – with some satisfaction – a series of accomplishments: in many countries, the infection has been drastically slowed down and the number of deaths has significantly decreased (though not the sorrow felt for the five millions’ deaths worldwide and for the regions where the virus continues to claim victims). Moreover, trials for drugs able to fight the most harmful and painful effects of Coronavirus continue.

Essentially, the health crisis has been adequately tackled. It has highlighted the tragic vulnerabilities of our human and social condition, but now we can hope to have learned how to better cope with the next crisis. A crisis that will come for sure – we might not know when and how it will hit, yet we all feel that this is not an irrational fear.

From this overall picture, an initial basic consideration arises: we were able to make vaccines thanks to key scientific genetic research, which had been pursued for quite some time. In other words, thanks to the existence of a sound, substantial amount of “pure research”, whose results were then swiftly applied to a concrete problem – the pandemic.

The spotlight, then, is back on a particular issue: the need for a major, long-term commitment and investment – mainly from public sources, but also from some private ones – in so-called “pure research”, or, “basic research”. Research that is not focused on specific goals and whose only purpose is to investigate the mysteries surrounding nature and the human mind, the meaning of life and the choices we make, the strategies and languages people adopt to build relationships with each other, the values of our social and civic coexistence. The complexity that is inherent to us all, human beings living on this Earth, in an infinitesimal part of a space that is still largely undiscovered, incomprehensible, untold (astrophysicists, the most emblematic figures of “pure research”, would have a lot to tell us).

These themes were also revived by a recent document “for a Pure Science Project”, published by the Aspen Institute USA and shared for discussion with all the 14 countries where Aspen has a presence (Italy at the forefront), with a dual aim: to explore, more in depth and in a public forum, issues such as the value of science and research and to stimulate political decision-makers in investing more, and better.

The document explains how making progress in pure science is, in itself, a beneficial thing, as it moves us along one of the fundamental paths for civilisation: the one leading towards the full understanding of who we are and of the physical and biological characteristics of the world in which we live. These are strong values, reiterates the Aspen document, that also have an impact on our material progress and quality of life. If we had not discovered thermodynamics, relativity and quantum physics, the theory of evolution and theoretical chemistry – to mention just a few scientific findings – we would lead a much more impoverished and less interesting life.

Unfortunately, Aspen remarks, support for basic scientific research is decreasing everywhere, as also shown by the latest UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 (https://en.unesco.org/unescosciencereport).

This, then, is the reason why such a debate needs to be rekindled. We need to apportion a larger part of funding to basic research and measure its outcome according to criteria that go well beyond the mere achievement of immediate results. This is the responsibility of major international bodies and governments or, at least, of those where liberal democracy thrives (the Aspen document also reminds us of the link between freedom of research and democratic liberties). But it’s also a matter for the most forward-looking and sensible public opinions, those aware of the links between knowledge, environmental and social sustainability (i.e. the fight against inequalities), innovation, quality of life (good health is an essential part of it) – those who have trust and confidence in our younger generations’ future.

It’s also an essential task from an economic standpoint, whereby we need to “go beyond the GDP” – which only quantifies produced wealth – in order to investigate the environmental and social dimensions of phenomena, the cost caused by environmental damage and the depletion of resources, but also widening disparities (the age gap, the gender gap, social and geographic gaps) and the crisis affecting opportunities for improvement. What we need, then, is to define and implement a “Better Life Index”, in order to evaluate the increase in well-being. And to focus on the assumptions surrounding a “circular” and “civic” economy, in order to improve people’s lives and prospects, not just on increasing productivity and competitiveness. We need, therefore, to undertake “pure research” on the key aspects of our fragile human condition (on this, Misurare ciò che conta (Measuring what counts) by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Jean-Paul Fitoussi and Martine Durand, recently published by Einaudi, makes for a very useful read).

Applied research on individual issues will then follow naturally, as part of the collaboration between public powers and legitimate private interests, public funds and fiscal stimuli, and corporate investments.

The EU Recovery Fund, based on a green and digital economy and aimed at opening up opportunities for the “Next Generation” – as well as at redefining the EU budget for the coming years – needs to move in this direction showing a clearer insight and with greater resources at its disposal.

The issues concerning pure research raised in the Aspen document also pertain to the worlds of education and culture, to reiterate some points we’ve already mentioned several times in this blog: the need for a “polytechnic culture” where humanities interbreed with sciences; different disciplines intersect; engineers and philosophers, medical practitioners and persons of letters, physicists and experts in neuroscience, chemists and sociologists, technicians and psychologists, legal experts and economists end up studying, researching, working and producing together.

In this period, defined by the knowledge economy and the evolution of artificial intelligence, this is what a balanced field of development should look like. And without a focus on basic research, with all that it entails, we won’t be able to make some major headway towards a better, more fulfilling and balanced life.