international analysis and commentary

In Favor of Pure Science

A Global Report by the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program in Collaboration Among the 13 International Partners and 1 International Initiative of the Aspen Institute



When a catastrophe like a pandemic occurs, most people, understandably, desire practical and immediate solutions. People seek a vaccine that could save lives and end the spiral of recession and poverty that is trapping all countries in the world—consequences that do not distinguish between wealthy and non-wealthy countries.

Important to note is that a vaccine is not just a technical device. Vaccines, like other drugs, are made possible by the advancement of pure, or basic, research. That is to say, by research aimed at discovering the fundamental laws of matter, whether animate or inanimate.

Now, many people seem to believe in science and in scientists. In some circles, anti-vaxxers
have gone quiet. But beware: this trend may not last. Vaccines derive from pure science,
particularly from genetics. Big investments in vaccine development are welcome, but they are
just a temporary solution—until the next pandemic appears. In order to have a safer world, one must first understand the structure of life. Moreover, it is crucial to have this knowledge before dramatic events occur.

Today, it is evident that had knowledge of cell biology and genetics been more complete, the
time to create a vaccine for COVID-19 would have been dramatically shorter. Advancement in pure science is good in itself, as it corresponds to one of the fundamental roots of civilization, of all civilizations: to understand who we are and the physical and the biological world in which we live. Advancement in pure science is also valuable because it allows for our material progress: better lives and longer lifespans. Without thermodynamics, relativity physics, quantum physics, evolutionary theory, and theoretical chemistry—to name just a few scientific fields—humans would live poorer and less interesting lives.

The sad fact is that almost everywhere in the world, the support for pure science is steadily
declining, as stated by the latest UNESCO Science Report: toward 2030. More and more public funding goes toward applied science, or toward technological applications of pure science already established. At the same time, pressure on making profits on a short-term basis is displacing the funding for pure science by large private enterprises. There are no more examples in the world like Bell Labs, where no fewer than 13 researchers won or shared a Nobel Prize.

We have to look back to history. “Women and men can know; then they can be free”: this
statement is one of the basic foundations on which the modern world was built. The birth of
modern science did not just mean a change in knowledge of the natural world, but also a change in knowledge of the moral world, and even a change in the way humans perceived themselves.

Indeed, scientific inquiry assigned a key role to individual liberty in the inquiry into nature and
the pursuit of truth. The ideas of individual liberty and of political institutions based on the
principle of the limitation of sovereign power (constitutionalism) found their counterparts in
the idea of freedom to research: such freedom regards every human being and every scientific community as free to express theoretical and experimental results, without censorship by any external authority, whether political or moral in nature. The idea of rights that we cherish flowed from the scientific revolution and modern science no less than from constitutionalism and the market economy.

Today, any sound narrative about democracy must include a universal “right to science” as a
fundamental principle.

More than 50 years ago, the Aspen Institute launched a program called “Public Understanding
of Science.” The purpose was to understand which vision the American people had of pure
science, and why people seemed skeptical of orienting public resources towards financing it.
This program had an important role in making possible the flourishing of pure science in the
United States in the following years.

At that time, there was only one Aspen Institute in the world. Today there are 14 Aspen Institute partners across the world (United States, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Romania, Japan, Mexico, India, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and Colombia), which are united by the same motto: “Timeless values, enlightened leadership.” Aspen Institutes are made by a plurality of countries and cultures. No other private institution has this broad perspective.

Advancement in pure science is an important part of our vision of the good society. Pure
science is a “public good” because every human being, every human society, benefits from it. It has no frontiers, no ethnical divisions. Its results are available to anybody. There is nothing that unifies humankind as ethnic knowledge does.

Our belief is that today, an important part of the Aspen mission throughout the world is to
make a plea in favor of pure science: a plea for more public and private funding, a plea for
more freedom of research, a plea for more globalized research, a plea for a more open access to pure science for minorities of all kinds.

The added value of a global action by the Aspen Institute International Partners in favor of
pure science is that they do not represent any vested interest. Among their members are many eminent scientists, but they are not scientific societies. They represent learned people, concerned with the future of our societies and of our planet. They represent people who share the same humanistic values.

In the medium-to-long run, this project will have the objective to make the consciousness of
the importance of putting pure science at the center of public and private policies a structural
element of the “enlightened leadership” at the national and, ever more importantly, at the
global level, for the general wellbeing of humanity.