Executive Director's Column

Just Curious

I prefer that research be motivated by a specific strategic goal – to solve a problem that many others (not just me) want to see solved. My ideal is what Donald Stokes would call Pasteur’s Quadrant – research motivated by the need to solve practical problems.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with the concept of curiosity driven research. I’m sure that’s what inspired me to pursue an academic research career. How thrilling it can be to stumble across a fundamental property of human behavior that you never knew was there!

I must confess, however, some degree of ambivalence when it comes to curiosity driven research. In more cynical moments, I think of it as a free pass to follow your nose wherever it leads. If federal grants are used to pave the way, how do you justify such scientific wandering to the taxpayers who foot the bill?

The basic defense is to say “trust me, the history of science is full of great discoveries borne out of nothing more than pure curiosity.” This is true. Of course it is easy to point to a discovery in hindsight, and call it the result of curiosity. It is a difficult defense, however, when the discovery is not yet known.

It is the difficulty of justifying current pursuits on little more than a promissory note that is the basis of my problem with curiosity driven research. I prefer that research be motivated by a specific strategic goal – to solve a problem that many others (not just me) want to see solved. My ideal is what Donald Stokes would call Pasteur’s Quadrant – research motivated by the need to solve practical problems.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, especially in the context of the new NIH preoccupation with translational research. This strikes me as a perfect example of Pasteur’s Quadrant – using what we already know to solve important, practical problems.

Yet, a crisis of faith emerges upon further reflection. Translational research requires that we start with some basic knowledge to translate. And from where does that basic knowledge originate? Very often, from plain curiosity. Fundamental, basic research – what Stokes would call Bohr’s Quadrant – is what usually provides the substance for translation. We can’t start down the road of translation without it.

Seen this way, translational research is turning yesterday’s discoveries into tomorrow’s interventions. I have no problem with that. I start to worry, however, about generating tomorrow’s new discoveries. If we don’t continue to uncover new knowledge, the well will run dry, and we will have nothing to translate by next week. This is the folly of investing all of our resources in translational research. We are cashing out our accumulated savings of knowledge, as if all that there is to discover has already been uncovered.

And so I come full circle, an unabashed fan of curiosity driven, basic research. I appreciate the need to put new knowledge to good use, but more fundamentally I cherish the pursuit of new knowledge itself. It drives all that follows, including translation.

Yet, a challenge still remains. For most fields of science, the lay public is also curious. They understand the pursuit of curiosity driven research, and they are willing to part with a certain amount of their tax dollars to support it. They like going along for the ride.

Behavioral science and psychology is not too different. People are curious, they want to know what makes us tick. But for some reason, the lay public is less willing to spend much money on research aimed at illuminating the human condition. Are they afraid of what might be discovered? Of how it might ultimately be used? Or do they just feel that this kind of knowledge is easily and inexpensively uncovered?

If you are curious about a phenomenon of human behavior, this one is worth pursuing. The future of our discipline may depend on it.