Be a force for science: An interview with Barbara Schaal

Barbara Schaal

In a recent interview with Jane Qiu of the National Science Review, Barbara Schaal, dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences, spoke about a number of issues facing the global scientific community. Schaal discussed why science is a public good, how basic science is the engine of economic growth and prosperity, the importance of social science, and the need to defend the free flow of ideas and people across national boundaries. Bill Moran, the publisher of Science, also took part in the dicussion. 

"The key to providing discoveries and keeping new technologies and new industries growing is to develop policies to foster the entire innovation pipeline — from basic science through the application of research findings," Schaal said. The value of basic research has been repeatedly called into question, Schaal believes, "partly because the connection between free-flowing, curiosity-driven research enterprise and the benefits our societies receive is not straightforward." Basic research does lead to technological innovations and new industries, but this process is often slow and unpredictable, she explained.

When questioned about China's ongoing debates regarding the amount of funding that should be devoted to basic science versus applied research, Schaal replied that "there would be no applied research without basic science. Basic research takes a long time, years and often decades. You can’t predict where it is going to go," she said. "But it’s an investment for the future."

Investment is also essential to support social science research, Schaal asserted later in the interview. "We need policies to support social science — just as we do biological and physical sciences — and we need to try to foster a greater integration between natural and social science."

"Basic research takes a long time, years and often decades. You can’t predict where it is going to go. But it’s an investment for the future."

Dean Schaal's many leadership roles in the scientific community include being the 2017 President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vice President of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and a former advisor of the President's Council of Advisors in Science and Technology under the Obama administration. 

For the full conversation, visit the National Science Review.