At the end of November, the spacecraft InSight landed on Mars and captured the hearts of people around the country. NASA will explore the deep interior of Mars with the goal of understanding the planet’s composition and evolution. The InSight landing is significant not only because it accesses new data on Mars, but also because it is a product of decades of scientific research both directly related to and seemingly light years away from space exploration.
A project like InSight makes a case for the continued funding of fundamental research fields such as atomic and molecular physics, biophysics and geology, which may not have an immediate or obvious application. In fact, InSight’s success is directly dependent on many of these seemingly esoteric research fields, the results of which have equipped InSight with the capabilities that make it possible to explore Mars. Successful projects like InSight highlight the necessity of funding of basic, or fundamental, research, both in a general sense and at UC Berkeley, specifically.
In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of U.S. adults who think it is a good investment to provide government funding in medical, engineering and technology research such as NASA’s research is 80 percent, while only 77 percent think basic science research in physical, chemical and life sciences has a long-term payoff. Although those data points are generally close in number, the discrepancy between medical or technology research and basic science research deserves some attention. As taxpayers, it may seem more appealing to have one’s taxes contribute toward space exploration than esoteric research without an obvious impact, a notion that is evident by the large amount of public attention dedicated to NASA.
And fundamental research studies outside of space science, the results of which are less flashy, are even less funded. A simple comparison, not considering the respective sizes and ages of these agencies, shows that in 2017, NASA received $19.7 billion of the federal budget, while the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, which supports research geared toward understanding energy at the biological, environmental and molecular levels, obtained about a quarter of what NASA received. While these numbers alone cannot indicate the interest level of the federal government in fundamental research, they do highlight a notable discrepancy. Funding for curiosity-driven science is critical, and UC Berkeley, which has built a prestigious academic environment through basic research practices that have evolved into incredible new technologies, is an excellent example of why.
UC Berkeley has long been at the forefront of basic research in physical, chemical and life sciences, and must continue to be. UC Berkeley research groups have been instrumental in developing technologies such as the cyclotron, discovering 16 chemical elements and understanding the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. The UC system receives the largest amount of federal support for academic research across the nation, and within the UC system, Berkeley stands out as a recipient of the largest grants from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, specifically dedicated to fundamental research studies. The benefit of this basic research funding manifests itself so clearly in the case of CRISPR.
CRISPR, which is known to many people in the general public as a technique for editing the genomic information of living organisms, was developed right on the UC Berkeley campus. Jennifer Doudna, one of the leading researchers credited with developing CRISPR, started work on it more than a decade ago through a small, basic NSF research grant. Today, Doudna’s lab at UC Berkeley continues to tackle unanswered fundamental questions with CRISPR, such as why applying CRISPR sometimes leads to unexpected changes in genetic information away from the target site.
These unintentional genetic changes caused by CRISPR will be essential to understand before using the technology in applications such as treating disease in humans. The freedom of pursuing creative solutions that are unrelated to the technological application is essential for scientific breakthroughs. Thus, even when research is tied to a technology, opportunities to explore fundamental questions are essential to the technology’s advancement, which is why it is crucial for UC Berkeley to continue to receive federal support for curiosity-driven research.
Scientific and technological discoveries that capture the enthusiasm of our campus community and the public — InSight, self-driving cars, CRISPR and others — play an important role not only through achieving their goals, but also through the attention they bring to scientific pursuits in a general sense. We, as members of the UC Berkeley community, need to continue to recognize the importance of the fundamental scientific discoveries that made these projects possible and continue to financially support research at all levels. This requires us to increase our science diet such that we are aware of developing technology and the politics surrounding them, something that is relatively easy to do on a campus with so much exciting research. In doing so, we can make informed decisions about our participation in advocating for continued funding of basic research at UC Berkeley.