Back to basics: EMS dean talks about why fundamental scientific research matters

William Easterling, dean of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, delivers the keynote address at 2016 Research Penn State. Credit: Walt MillsAll Rights Reserved.

William Easterling, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, recently sat down for a Q&A to discuss his keynote address at Research Penn State 2016, a showcase for the University’s five interdisciplinary research institutes. This first-of-its-kind event, held over two days in October, highlighted the breadth and depth of research in the life sciences, energy and the environment, materials science and engineering, cyber-enabled science and the social sciences.

Through these University-wide institutes, Penn State is at the forefront of interdisciplinary research, which aims to break down the silos that separate traditional fields of research in order to pioneer new knowledge at the intersection of scientific disciplines.   

Research Penn State 2016, with a theme “Competing in a Rapidly Changing World,” brought together representatives from more than 40 companies with over 200 graduate students and faculty who presented their research in an interactive poster session. In all, the event attracted 500 visitors. At the graduate-student-faculty-industry reception held at the Nittany Lion Inn, Easterling presented the keynote address, “Pasteur’s Quadrant in the 21st Century: Why We Need to Rediscover Fundamental Research.” 

Q: Dean Easterling, your talk focused on the importance of funding so-called basic or fundamental research. Why is basic research important?

A: I think you can safely say that throughout history by far the largest source of new knowledge that has ultimately made a difference in how we live our lives has come from curiosity-driven fundamental research rather than research driven to solve a specific problem. It’s just scientists asking questions because they want to get the answers. They want to learn how the world works.

That has not always led to useful information. Sometimes the information is really quite esoteric with no immediately obvious applications. But there is always the chance it could turn out to be the basis for some unforeseen technical revolution. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, an example of fundamental physics, is crucial to the Global Positioning System (GPS) we use every day in a variety of ways. It took 40 years for the basic research on nuclear magnetic resonance by Isador Rabi to produce the MRI machine used in hospitals.

Q: What is use-inspired research and how is that related to your talk, which referenced Pasteur’s Quadrant?

A: I came across the idea of Pasteur’s Quadrant about 10 years ago in a book by D.E. Stokes, and it resonated with me. I have had an abiding interest in how the structuring of research induces or impedes the development of new ideas that can change the direction of science. Use-inspired basic science is the middle ground between fundamental science, which tends to be composed of one-off types of questions that may or may not open any further doors, and the other extreme, which is pure applied research, in which you are taking known information and arranging it in a way that helps you understand a problem.

Pasteur’s Quadrant, as I said in my talk, is the block in the diagram of possible research configurations where the relevance of the research and the scientist who are asking fundamental questions are brought into close proximity. I believe that most of what we call fundamental research these days is already use-inspired research, Pasteur’s Quadrant.

Q: What is the current status of fundamental research in the United States?

A: The United States is the world leader in the amount of fundamental research conducted. But at the same time, it’s also losing ground. The relative growth is slowing down, and that’s what has caught our attention. Government funding has been almost flat for the last 10 years, and that’s a worrisome trend.

Q: Why is this happening?

A: There are a number of reasons. There are many competing demands for public funds, many of them entitlements that have to be met by the government. Research is often seen as almost a luxury. For those who aren’t familiar with the enormous impact that fundamental research can have on future new technologies, it’s easy for them to say that research is going to have to get in line behind a lot of pressing needs. In the long-term view, it is a missed opportunity because we are not supporting basic research at the rate we have in the past in times when we have seen the remarkable impacts in the form of new technologies.

Q: How is Penn State doing in terms of basic research?

A: I think Penn State’s ship has come home. The last 15 years we’ve seen an impressive rise in the amount of important fundamental research that is done here. It’s happening across many of the disciplines, and it is the direct result of the investment Penn State has made in supporting the interdisciplinary research institutes. These institutes have been very successful in facilitating basic research in novel combinations of disciplines to generate both knowledge for its own sake and for immediate application to real-world problems. On top of all that, we have become a place where the reputation for research at a high level has gotten out to the rest of the world.


Graduate students from five Penn State research institutes presented posters at Research Penn State 2016. Credit: Walt MillsAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated October 21, 2016