Scientific progress and the progress of society (Carlo Ghezzi)

Scientific progress and the progress of society (Carlo Ghezzi)


Research aims at producing new knowledge. It is largely driven by human curiosity. The motivation to push knowledge beyond the
boundary of what is currently known is intrinsic in human nature and has led humans to dominate
the world. According to Dante’s compelling words spoken
by Ulysses in Inferno Canto 26 fatti non foste a viver come bruti, ma per
seguir virtute e canoscenza Ye were not form’d to live the life of brutes,
but virtue to pursue and knowledge high. Today we recognize that research is not only
an irrepressible human aspiration, but also the fundamental source of progress for society. The causal link between scientific research
and progress, however, became only evident in the past 3-4 centuries. The foundations for scientific research were
laid in the early 17th century, with the contributions of Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac
Newton. We will go deeper into these contributions
in a later lecture, which will focus on the scientific method. Since then, the world witnessed a phenomenal
and unprecedented growth in human power. The notion that scientific research drives
progress became evident, and humans realized that they could increase their capabilities
by investing in scientific research. This wasn’t just blind faith, it was repeatedly
proven by empirical evidence. This led wealthy people and governments to
invest in research. As we can see research produces more power,
which generates resources that can fuel further research. Sometimes a distinction is made between basic
research (also called pure or fundamental) and applied research. Sometimes the distinction is between scientific
research and technological research. This distinction can be traced back to 1944,
one year before the end of World War II, when USA president Roosevelt asked Vannevar Bush,
head of the Office of Scientific Research Development during war, to advise him on the
role of research during peace. Bush produced a report, which influenced the
developments and funding initiatives worldwide. Bush introduced the term basic research to
indicate research ”performed without thought of practical ends”. Basic research contributes to knowledge and
is only driven by curiosity: the creativity needed to do basic research would be lost
if research is finalized to a premature attention to its practical usage. Applied research, instead, is problem-driven
and more predictable. Its goal is to deliver potentially practical
results. According to Bush, basic research is the pacemaker
of technological progress. Its discoveries are taken up by applied research,
which then leads to the development of innovations – such as new products or processes. Although Bush’s stand in defense of unconstrained,
basic research is still very valuable, the mechanistic view of linear process, progressing
from basic to applied research and then into innovations is not realistic. In practice the process is NOT linear. There is constant feedback from practice to
ideas of new research and from ideas to practice: it is hard to say which comes first and which
comes next. Fundamental research questions may arise from
the complexity of real problems, from attempts to open new unexplored directions or to try
radically different solutions to known problems. The distinction between “pure” and “applied”
research is often fuzzy. It is true, however, that problems arising
in the real world may be solved through more or less radically new and challenging research
approaches. The closer research goals are to current practice,
the more likely research results will provide incremental practical benefits and gains. Exploration of more radical approaches may
instead be more risky, they may not lead to benefits in the short term, but they may lead
to future high gains. All forms of research can be equally important
for progress. The term Research and Development (R&D) is
often used to indicate the entire spectrum of activities, from purely speculative to
practically inspired research to pre-competitive developments of prototype solutions. Governments, public and private institutions
invest in R&D, by paying salaries to researchers and funding their ideas presented as research
proposals. Here we can see the data on worldwide research
investment published by the UNESCO. The circles show how much countries are spending
on R&D. Countries farther to the right are spending
relatively more in terms of their GDP. Those closer to the top have higher numbers
of researchers per 1 million inhabitants. You can easily observe how investments in
research correlate to the developments of a country.

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