Kim: Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake
By Yoo Jung Kim, Staff Columnist
Published on Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Last week, over 750 research interns convened at the National Institute of Health’s 2012 Poster Day to present their findings. The topics ranged from molecular mechanisms in biology to the reasoning behind physicians’ reluctance to prescribe gene testing for patients. In this vast spectrum of the life sciences, my own project — lengthily titled “Repair of Double Strand Breaks Containing DNA Sequences Distant from the Genome” — fell somewhere near the former. I fielded questions from students, post-baccalaureates, post-docs and principle investigators, leading my viewers through the introduction, experiments, results, analysis and future directions — the staples of a typical scientific poster presentation.
My second visitor was another summer intern. He listened politely to my stumbling spiel about my project and then posed a question: “What’s a potential real-life application of this finding?”
My mind went blank. Although I could see the importance of the research in the vast context of open-ended scientific inquiry, I could not think of an immediate, short-term application for our discovery. I instead sidestepped his question and pointed out the fundamental importance of DNA repair mechanisms in the upkeep of the genetic code that keeps our bodies running. He seemed satisfied by my circumlocution and went on his way. But the encounter left me pondering a lingering question: Is knowledge important for knowledge’s sake?
This question was raised globally following the July announcement that CERN, the multinational particle physics laboratory based in Geneva, found a particle that closely resembles the widely misunderstood Higgs boson, also known as the God particle. In the context of our global economic slump, some people criticized the hefty budget associated with the Large Hadron Collider, approximately 7.5 billion euros, or around $9 billion. Researchers and scientists replied that the Higgs boson particle can account for all of the unexplained mass in the universe, but many still demanded to know the short-term practical applications of the Higgs boson, if any.
While public scientific discourse is critical to educating the masses and gaining public support for the sciences, the rapid accumulation of scientific knowledge is also creating an intellectual rift between the public and academia. Especially in our bleak economic situation, discoveries are celebrated for their practicality and application. But the opinion that research should be undertaken only when implications and possible utility are known short-circuits the research process and limits possibilities of open-ended scientific inquiry. In the words of English statisticial geneticist Toby Andrew, "To reap any major benefits, scientific inquiry and social experimentation demand that we expose ourselves to unanticipated opportunities and risks."
Even a brief review of history illustrates that scientific breakthroughs have been achieved through ambitious, open-ended inquiry. In one example from the 18th century, Thomas Bayes devised the complex mathematical theorem that bares his name. Today the theory is of great importance, as those with an understanding of Bayes’ theorem can now calculate a statistical likelihood based only on partial information, otherwise known as inverse probability. But the sheer volume of mathematical computation required only allowed the utility of Bayes’ theorem to be realized with the invention of the supercomputer. Without this marvel of modern technology, Bayes’ theorem was interesting, but had no practical use — until it fell into the hands of those who had the need, the ingenuity and the technological capacity to apply it.
Not every piece of existing knowledge will serendipitously find a practical utility comparable to that of Bayes’ theorem. However, since we lack the prescience to know the specific pieces of knowledge that will be needed in the future, enabling researchers to accumulate a payload of knowledge will create a foundation that future generations of scholars can build upon.
Open-ended inquiry is important for future innovation, and scientists must underscore the importance of scientific freedom. While the question of practical purpose is undoubtedly important for solving specific questions or problems, the utility of a product of scientific research may not be immediately seen until well after its discovery. Furthermore, by continuing to recognize the intrinsic value of knowledge, we can continue to accumulate our store of knowledge and gain a better understanding of our own place in the universe.