This morning I had the honor of speaking at the Kansas City March for Science. I was invited by an organizer, one of our fantastic graduate students, Cassi Johnson. It was a blustery day so the conditions weren’t ideal, but it was good to see so many of our students out in force. I was tasked with giving a speech about the value of basic science and gave one that I hope achieved that goal. For those who couldn’t attend, below is the text of the speech. Thanks so much to everyone who planned the march and those who came out to celebrate science!
March for Science, Kansas City – April 14, 2018
Good morning and thank you all for being here!
Today I want to talk about the value of science in the long term. For most of our scientific breakthroughs, we don’t hear the whole story. By the time we see a treatment or an invention, it may have been 5 or 50 years since the fundamental discoveries they depend on were made. It may have been 10 years, 100 years, or longer since the mathematics they depend on were invented. It might be the very latest technological advancement that allows us to synthesize information that took decades to collect. Science builds upon itself. From the toiling of single-minded enthusiasts that have devoted their lives to one question. From new perspectives of old findings by creative young minds. From both collaboration and competition. This is the investment in human advancement that we have made together as a society.
My son is nearly 5. His first experiences learning about science are with rocks, clouds, and the moon. With plants, and birds, and bugs. We teach our kids how to explore the world around them. To be curious and ask what, how, and why. We are able to stoke the fire of our children’s curiosity. And once in this country, we were able to do it for the adults too. In 1962, when John F. Kennedy spoke at Rice university, he said
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.
“Not because they are easy but because they are hard.” To me, that is the single most important line in that speech. That is the spirit that we can capture again. A willingness to tackle our most difficult questions. A dissatisfaction with the current state of knowledge. A hunger to understand. A shared quest to explore beyond our understanding to fuel the engine of progress.
I wasn’t yet born when America put a man on the moon but achieving that ambitious goal left a permanent mark on my generation. As a student, my favorite popular science books were by cosmologists like Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Leonard Susskind. My favorite movies were about astronauts and space. And I’m still jealous of scientists that work at NASA. How much fun must it be to spend your days thinking about the nature of the universe and how we can explore it? I know many of you share my love of all things space. Seeing all of you here today, we have an opportunity to harness all this great energy, to inspire the curiosity of a new generation by showing them we can set an ambitious goal and succeed, even if we don’t yet know what the outcomes will be. We can do it because it’s a challenge. Like JFK said, “one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”
A young person inspired to explore for the sake of exploration will be the one to make the next major scientific breakthrough that changes the course of humanity. I know this because as an educator, I see it in the brilliance and enthusiasm of our students. It is a gift to watch them learn for the first time how to tackle a difficult problem. To show them how to find the absolute boundary of human knowledge, how to use the methods developed by other scientists and ourselves to push those boundaries into completely new territory, and watch them be the first person on Earth to learn something new about our world. They will get enormous satisfaction from posing a question and inventing a way to answer it. Rarely, they will be proved right, sometimes proved wrong, and by far most often, they will be confused in a way that leads to even better questions and answers. And the excitement and boldness of young people can renew our own. We have taught them to be curious, resilient, ambitious, and bold, but they will show us how to live what we teach. So to lay the foundation for the next generation, we must create an environment in which we celebrate science in society like we are doing here today. In which the country is so invested in our collective innovation and discovery that all Americans tune in with rapt attention to see the next major leap for mankind.
In my view, the first step in doing this is to remind ourselves why basic science is so important. What I mean by basic science is pure theory and knowledge, not necessarily its final application towards inventions and cures. An example of this is what we do in my own lab. My lab studies algae and the little arms they use to swim. So why algae, these little green cells that are somewhere between plants and animals? It turns out that the arms they use to swim are almost the same as ones that human cells need to avoid blindness, cancer, kidney diseases, susceptibility to infection, and so much more. But we don’t study any of these diseases directly. We study how those arms are built, something that will advance the work on all of those diseases at once! Both the core findings and their applications are important, but understanding the basics is an absolutely necessary first step.
Scientists also use so called model organisms, like the algae we study, because they have advantages when it comes to laboratory experimentation. They may grow quickly or be safer to work with. They may represent an extreme or efficient case of some biological problem we’re studying. And ultimately, they may shed light on fundamental biological, chemical, or physical properties that allow us to make enormous leaps in understanding for humans. There are many well established model organisms like yeast, worms, fish, flies, and mice. But life is extraordinarily diverse. There are also organisms that have evolved a new way to do something desirable. Organisms that can rapidly regenerate their bodies. Organisms that can quickly rearrange their genetic material to adapt to environmental stresses. With the reduced cost of genome sequencing and the development of new tools, it is now possible to leverage life’s diversity to learn much more than ever before. As has happened so many times before, the next major leap in technology or biological understanding may come from some creature found in the soil, or pond water, or in an extreme climate, or from an organism that has yet to be discovered. One of the most powerful and versatile techniques used in laboratories around the world to help diagnose disease, clone genes, generate therapies, and in forensics, became possible through the discovery of a bacterium that can survive very high temperatures in a geyser in Yellowstone National Park in the 1960s. It would have been impossible to fathom all the implications of this discovery at the time. The ingenuity of many scientists over decades has allowed us to engineer molecular machines from these heat-loving bacteria to do things we literally could never have imagined. The same was true for studies of the patterns in butterfly wings, which informed how blood types are inherited in humans and lead to a therapy that saved the lives of millions of babies with incompatible blood types from their mothers. The findings that will have the biggest impact on our lives will be the ones that are the most fundamental. The ones many different fields can build upon.
It’s easy to mock basic science research as a waste of money, because we can’t clearly understand its immediate uses. And it’s easy to be content to not understand. But we here are not content. And we don’t want our society and our children to be content. So in science, when we can’t always predict where our next big breakthrough will come from, our best bet is to support basic science. Because fundamental understanding about our world is the basis of all other discoveries. We understand that limiting this fundamental research will limit how much can come after.
So, what do I think we should we do? We should stay curious and hungry to learn. We should set ambitious goals. We should impress upon our representatives that government must invest in long term discovery and innovation. We should build an environment where scientists know they will have strong support so that we can attract the best talent in the world. We should make sure America remains a place where the diversity of scientists and their ideas can generate more creative solutions to the most challenging problems. We should invest in knowledge. We should invest in the fundamental discoveries that will lead to so much more than we can learn in our lifetimes. We should invest in basic science for the benefits we can envision, but so much more importantly, for all the benefits we can’t.