What should be the motivation for scientific research?

KATINKA VON GRAFENSTEIN

 “Yesterday was my 21st birthday, at that age Newton and Pascal had already acquired many claims to immortality.” Joseph Fourier (1768 – 1830), a French mathematician and physicist, wrote this sentence in a letter to one of his professors in Auxerre. Immortality – a very personal reason for becoming a scientist and trying to make an important discovery.  There should be nothing wrong with the wish to become famous and maybe even known ‘forever’ for a great scientific breakthrough. With this wish there may be the longing for wealth as well.

But these motivations are certainly understandable and very human. Another personal motivation, but less profane as fame and wealth, is the interest in science itself, the need for knowledge, just to know how the world is constructed and how it works, maybe without even the wish to use this knowledge for anything. The question of where everything, the universe, the earth and all living things on it come from can be very driving. This is a good reason to do science – without considering the possible misuse of this knowledge by others, for example for atomic weapons.

But the motivation which drives scientists to their work can also be in consideration of a larger group of people or the whole world. There could be the reason to gain power for a certain nation, for example to be more successful in a war through better and newer weapons. Since war and scientific new weapons are able to bring death and misery to a lot of people I am convinced that this should not be the motivation to do science. Even if one must admit that some important new technologies are developed for armies and are only introduced later to public use. For example the da Vinci System, which uses console controlled robots for operations on humans, was originally invented by a company working for the U.S army and is now used in many hospitals to do complicated surgeries.

While the outcome of this particular invention may have been the same, I think scientists should rather try to develop something like this to help people and not because it is needed for war. Thus we arrived at the completely different motivation to invent new technologies to help people or for example to conserve the environment which is the foundation for everybody’s living. This can range from renewable energy technologies to the prevention of danger to humans through the early knowledge when a volcano will erupt or a meteor might hit the earth.

The last mentioned possible motivation for being a scientist is certainly the most moral and honourable one. Nevertheless it is probably the most difficult one since it is hard to consider the whole world in one’s own life and I would suspect that more personal reasons stand beside those ethical reasons as well. It is my opinion that whatever motivations or reasons stand behind the wish to do science there should always be the consideration of what the effect of new discoveries and new technologies will be.

What should be the motivation for scientific research?

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