I hadn’t been a high school graduate for more than three weeks when I received an email from University President Peter Salovey detailing the findings of the University Science Strategy Committee. This tome of over 80 pages, the culmination of months of deliberation, identified five areas for “top-priority investment”: integrative data science, quantum science, neuroscience, inflammation and environmental and evolutionary sciences.
The report intrigued me. On one hand, I was excited. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to study science and math. In high school, I spent much of my time conducting research, entering science and mathematics competitions and participating in big data analytics hackathons. On the other, I wondered if Yale deciding to focus its scholarly and funding efforts in the applied sciences at the expense of the pure sciences was the best course of action for the future.
Each of the priority ideas is fundamentally applied; it seeks to join percepts with concepts across disciplines. Big data, machine learning and quantum computing have become buzzwords in today’s society, incorporated into everything from economics to medicine to architecture to music. Certainly, this is the very bleeding edge of scientific endeavor that the near future will be built upon. But what is applied science if it doesn’t have the backbone of pure science? History tells us that most major innovations have been built upon strong foundations set by research in the basic sciences. In turn, the practical world guides pure research into new realms. Basic and applied research should not be viewed as mutually independent, as either can reach its full potential without the other.
In his advertisement to the first issue of his American Journal of Science and the Arts in 1818, Benjamin Silliman, Yale professor of chemistry and natural history and the namesake of our very own Silliman College, urged that “science be cherished for its own sake, and with a due respect to its own dignity.” To me, the strict dichotomy between basic and applied sciences at Yale and the world at large is a microcosm of the larger gulf between the humanities and STEM fields at many of Yale’s illustrious peer institutions. For example, at Stanford University, students speak of succumbing to the “CS vortex,” peer-pressured to major in a STEM field despite matriculating with interests in a more right-brained discipline. Humanities is seen as too abstract and sequestered from the real world for the ever-pragmatic STEM-majoring majority. Yale has, to its credit, done well to stress the importance of both sides of a liberal arts education. What has set Yale apart for much of its storied history has been its constant dedication to attaining the proverbial Lux behind the Veritas, studying the human condition in its very purest form without getting bogged down by its applications. The publication of the University Science Strategy Committee report marks a departure from Yale’s legacy as grounded in the theoretical.
It would be naive to believe that the committee has sole discretion over how resources at Yale are channeled; it is not difficult to understand why a research institution’s stakeholders would be inclined to fund translational research over theoretical work. Indeed, applied work yields concrete results that have direct potential to change the world. But what of the inherent beauty of working to chart the frontiers of human knowledge, following idea with bolder idea without thinking about the utility of those musings in the future? Earlier this month, the Parker Solar Probe was launched into space with the goal of gaining insight into the fiery enigma that is our Sun’s corona. Understanding the mechanisms responsible for the corona’s heat will likely not make a significant difference to the lives of most residing here on Earth. However, the fundamental physics problem the expedition has the potential to solve will pave the way for us to better understand our place in the universe. Endeavors like these literally transcend the confines of our world itself by pitting human intellect, tenacity and imagination against fundamental queries that escape simple practicality.
Rather than a cerebral, logical process guided by a rigid methodology, scientific research is a beautiful mess. Real life isn’t about clean equations and exact measurements. It’s imperfect, unpredictable and ever-changing. It’s about people coming together experientially and in action to dream past the constructs of human experience and eventually push the boundaries of human knowledge itself. As such, from the study of pure sciences and mathematics stems raw, unbridled creativity that expands the mind.
While still gaining the useful skills for the future, I want Yale to help me appreciate study, learning and research for its own sake. Now more than ever, in our career-oriented world, it is all too easy to find a sense of fulfillment within the sheer instrumentality of everything we do. Yale should take care not to neglect the pure sciences in the search for future-readiness, and we may all learn from its example in our journeys towards finding meaning and happiness in our own lives.
Gandhar Mahadeshwar is a first year in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.