The job of the scientist is, first and foremost, to pursue science, not funding. Larry Marshall, the newly appointed head of CSIRO, may have started out in science, but you know he’s spent too many years in business when – in his first official communiqué – he claims that scientists have a ‘duty’ to start companies.
It would be too easy to simply list all of the lovely technologies and life-changing medical advancements basic research has given us, and ask, ‘Would you have liked to have gone without all of these?’
Instead, let’s acknowledge that industry can help fund some basic research, however an overemphasis on the commercialisation of research outcomes is fundamentally opposite to the nature and philosophy of science as a human endeavour.
Imagine a young research student in 1960s Japan. The lab head they are currently working for has assigned them the task of studying small, nocturnal jellyfish. When the jellyfish die and are crushed, they glow when exposed to water. It seems strange, perhaps even interesting, but could anyone have at that time reasonably predicted that the work of this research student would end up earning them a Nobel Prize? Osamu Shimomura, the student who did that work, could hardly have guessed so.
Shimomura helped discover aequorin and green fluorescent protein, which are what made the jellyfish he was studying glow. Isolating the genetic codes for these proteins has led to their widespread use in research, giving medical researchers the ability to observe biological activity at the molecular level and allowing engineers to develop advanced biosensors, among other things.
If Shimomura had a duty to start a company, how could he have sold his jellyfish experiment to a venture capitalist?
S: I want to study these glowing jellyfish. They’re really cool.
VC: What will you discover? How much money can we make from your discovery?
S: I don’t know.
And Shimomura can’t know, nor can anyone! That’s the fundamental nature of basic research and of science generally: to discover what we don’t yet know. Sure, we can sometimes reasonably guess, but we’re only guessing and we can barely do that in most instances of basic research, such as in Shimomura’s case.
Shimomura wouldn’t have been able to get his experiments off the ground if he was told he had a duty to make the outcomes of his experiments commercialisable. He’d have to do something completely different, and ultimately something that wasn’t basic research.
Since this problem of the unknown is common for almost all of basic research, the claim that scientists ought to start companies is essentially to say that they shouldn’t pursue basic research. Do we really wish for this? If we do, the ultimate goal and purpose of science is lost to an impatient sense of utility.
I say ‘impatient sense’ because basic research forms the foundation on which all utilisations of science rely upon. Those biosensors and the incredible detail of information which medical researchers have used to develop new treatments for disease are all – in part – courtesy to a research student in 1960s Japan methodically studying some obscure, nocturnal jellyfish.