Horizon 2020

ok, I didn’t actually want to write about this but provoked by a few tweets I feel provoked.

I was at my grandmother’s 85 years birthday yesterday and sat across from one of my cousins. You go through the usual “what are you doing these days” and as usual I tell some story about trying to figure out something basic. In this case “I want to figure out how the great apes diverged into different species”.

I do want to figure that out, it wasn’t a lie, but that is besides the point.

Anyway, he asks me if it would be better to focus science on something applied like curing diseases.

I answered “no”.

He looked at me, like he expected something more, so I felt I had to elaborate…

The thing is, the longer answer is rather complex, but rather important.

Let me make a cartoon of science, and I apologise for making science seem so simple. But you can think of two kinds of science. The “figuring out how the world works” science, and the “figuring out how to make cool stuff” science. We call the first “basic science” and the second “applied science”.

Your fancy new phone was developed based on the second kind of science. Most medicine is based on the second type. Pretty much everything you touch that is science based is based on the second kind.

So it seems like the second type is pretty important.

The thing is, it is all contingent on the first kind.

You can’t do “figure out how to make cool stuff” if you haven’t “figured out how the world works” first.

Quantum mechanics was an attempt to figure out how the world works that people worked on at the beginning of the 20th century. That lead to transistors. In the 21st century you can’t move about without touching a computer.

People didn’t invent quantum theory to build computers, that was just a lucky coincidence.

A lot, if not most, of the technology you have today is based on basic science. Science that was not based on any goal to develop cool gadgets. Science that was focused on figuring out how the world actually works.

It turns out that if you understand how the world works you can work out ways of making cool gadgets. If you don’t understand how the world works you are left with the option of steam driven mobile phones.

Curiosity driven research pays for itself, even if most of the discoveries have no applications what so ever. The few important discoveries will pay for  the rest, and you have no way of knowing what is worthwhile examining and what is a waste of time.

With the EU’s new Horizon 2020 we have to have companies involved. I don’t know if I read this incorrectly, but it looks to me like you have to have a working prototype in a few years and that is just not how important science work.

You would never have a computer if you wanted to go from basic research to a working laptop in three years…

Author: Thomas Mailund

My name is Thomas Mailund and I am a research associate professor at the Bioinformatics Research Center, Uni Aarhus. Before this I did a postdoc at the Dept of Statistics, Uni Oxford, and got my PhD from the Dept of Computer Science, Uni Aarhus.

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