Why do research that doesn’t solve today’s problems?

One of the bits of fuzzy thinking that bedevils the world is the belief that research should be focussed on solving our problems.  People who say that invariably mean “stop fooling around and solve today’s obvious problems.”  That point of view makes a certain amount of sense, but it assumes that problems always appear first, and solutions appear later.

Often, the world appears to work that way, but only because we don’t pay much attention to the opposite case, the one where solutions appear first and the problem comes along later.  We don’t pay much attention to the solutions-first cases because those problems get solved so rapidly and easily that no one thinks of them as hard, important problems.

Need to get a letter to China?   Not a problem — any more.  But in 1873, it was enough of a challenge so that Jules Verne could write “Around the World in 80 Days” as an barely-possible adventure story (it was first done by George Francis Train in 1870).  Getting something to China was one of those problems that was solved before you needed to do it.

The telephone, the computer, superconductors, optical fibres, all solved a million potential problems. And now, when you do anything new with a computer, the largest part of your problem has already been solved for you.   Solving problems before they appear is what is known as basic research.

The trouble with finding your problems first, and then solving them, is that the solution may well take decades, and until then, you suffer from your problem.   Whereas, if you’ve done your basic research, then once the problem is sighted, the answer is obvious and the suffering is minimal.  Of course, some basic research effort gets wasted, solving problems that will never appear, but given that developed economies spend less on basic research than on making movies, video games, bottled water, or chocolate, the wastage does not seem too extreme.

So, the reason to do basic research is not so much to solve problems as to make them disappear before they are even discovered.