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Basic science: Bedrock of progress

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Science  25 Mar 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6280, pp. 1405
DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6280.1405-a

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  • To See a World in an NIH Grant Application
    • Brian Z Ring, Professor, Huazhong University of Science and Technology

    William Blake said that we can see the world in a grain of sand. In this clarification of NIH grant requirements, we too can link the prosaic to the grand, and see a reflection of a major philosophical problem: the nature of progress. Dr. Collin’s letter is an affirmation of the existence and merit of progress. However, a belief in the benefit of basic research, and of progress itself, makes a leap; the assumption that understanding our world in greater detail will lead to an improved world.

    This trust in science and progress is not universal. Greek mythology and Confucius advised us to model ourselves on past heroes and classic texts. Our modern framing of progress, as human effort drawing us forward, is largely an idea of the Enlightenment. However some argue that society would be better organized on a simpler, more “natural” basis. Upon receiving a copy of Rousseau’s Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité, Voltaire replied, “… no one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes: to read your book makes one long to go about all fours.”, and suggested Rousseau return home and “…browse on its grass.” For that matter, William Blake was decidedly in Rousseau’s camp.

    The welcome clarification of NIH’s intent towards its research goals does not end this dispute. We arguably have more evidence now of the dangers of civilization and technology than at any time in our past. Despite this, most of us (myself included) continue to avow...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.