'Make basic science research attractive' to youth: Nobel laureates (Focus Taiwan)

  • Roger Kornberg, 2006 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry
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Taipei, May 10 (CNA) Nobel-prize winning scientists have advised Taiwan's government and industrialists that they should provide generous support for young researchers and give them freedom and independence to initiate their own research, because this is the best way to make basic science attractive.

Roger Kornberg, 2006 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, and Randy Schekman, who shared the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, both members of the Tang Prize Foundation's International Advisory Board, visited Taiwan in late April.

Interviewed by CNA about his advice on how Taiwan can encourage basic scientific research, Kornberg said the most important thing for governments "is to enable every bright, hardworking and ambitious young person to pursue his or her curiosity about nature."

Kornberg said it is especially important nowadays because millennials are less patient and less inclined to devote their lives to something that will pay a very small salary but could lead to interesting new discoveries.

"Governments must make that activity attractive," he said. "It benefits young people because they will do something that gives much greater satisfaction and have a greater personal reward from discovery than anything they can do. And they will benefit society."

A strong advocate for government funding in basic scientific research and a professor of structural biology at Stanford University's School of Medicine, Kornberg said he does not know anywhere in the world where funding for basic science is sufficient.

The fraction of budget of any country spent on fundamental science is exceedingly small, he said. "And yet we all know it is only by discovery that we solve problems."

Schekman, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkley, cited the way the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the United States funds researchers as an example, suggesting that Taiwanese industrialists or government could create similar ventures.

The institute gives generous grants to researchers who do what they think is important and can continue their programs if their performances pass evaluations conducted every five years or so to the highest standard, Schekman said.

There should be generous support that allows researchers over many years to develop their research programs "without always having to justify themselves," he said when asked about governments' roles in creating an environment conducive to basic scientific research.

Schekman also stressed that the government should not try to manage science from the top by investing in projects to achieve certain goals, but should "invest in people."

As for his words of advice for young scientists, Schekman encouraged them to choose a problem that is "really exciting," dream about what they could discover, and remind themselves of the goal they want to achieve as they proceed along that path.

"A good scientist is a risk taker, kind of a gambler, because after all, you are exploring the frontier. That means that you are going to fail a lot of times. So you have to be resilient, willing to re-examine and think all the time, to see what could be going wrong," he said.

Schekman also encouraged young scientists to keep slugging away "with the big picture in mind," because that helps overcome the usual daily frustrations of research that doesn't work. "Never mind if the experiment doesn't work. [Remember] what is your overall goal." 

(By Shih Hsiu-chuan)