We, researchers and non-researchers alike, often come across this question: what is the value of scientific work? Is it about publishing papers that expound upon novel ideas? Is it about work that can be commercialized? Is theoretical scientific work more valuable than practical scientific work? Are hands on abilities more valuable than critical thinking? These are perplexing questions with no straight forward answer. Probably, the best way to think of these is to understand that there is space in this world for all. Different approaches have their pros and cons. I think that it is even better to answer them in some context rather than after untying them from any context.
I have seen graduate students, especially PhD students, grappling with the value of their work in the beginning and then towards the end of their PhD. Many find their work of not much value compared to work that translates into something tangible, something that you can touch or see or hear; something that people can use; something that makes them feel that they have created something that did not exist.
Nevertheless, the use of an idea and the idea itself are two different things. They each deserve their own attention. It is also possible that a use case for an idea may not be realized in the immediate future once the idea was formulated. It may take time for the use case to appear and it may not be the same person who developed the idea. For instance, the inventor of laser would have probably never imagined that one day it would be used in laser pointers which we often use during presentations.
I think that when we question ourselves in this way, we need to go back in time and see what the savants of the field have said about these. One great piece is titled “The Value of Science” by Richard P. Feynman, Physics Nobel Laureate (1965) and both a researcher and a teacher par excellence. It is so rare to find an excellent researcher who is also an excellent teacher these days. The following paragraph from his public speech will probably be of immense interest to young researchers:
“I would now like to turn to a third value that science has. It is a little less direct, but not much. The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. ……………. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.”