On December 8th, 2022, a thematic session entitled “What If? Is Curiosity Still the Main Driving Force Behind Revolutionary Ideas in Science?” was held as part of the World Science Forum 2022 in Cape Town, South Africa. The session was moderated by Stephan Kuster (Frontiers), László Lovász (Alfred Renyi Institute of Mathematics) and Éva Kondorosi ( Group of Chief Scientific Advisors, European Commission) were in attendance as Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA)’s delegates, while Nils Stenseth (University of Oslo) was representing the Alliance of International Science Organizations (ANSO) as its Science Ambassador. They were joined by Himla Soodyall, the Executive Officer of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and Antoine Petit, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of CNRS (the French National Research Centre).
During the session, each speaker gave a presentation on their understanding of the role of curiosity in basic research based on their observation and personal background. After that a panel discussion was held.
In his lecture, László Lovász took examples from mathematics to demonstrate the unpredictability inherent in theoretical research that later led to unforeseen scientific breakthrough and practical implications that benefits the large public.
Nils Stenseth from University of Oslo, Science Ambassador of ANSO, argued that the dichotomy between basic research and applied research made little sense and was generally harmful. He also talked about the potential for basic science in Africa, and introduced the ANSO scholarship program that benefits many young students from the developing world.
Éva Kondorosi drew examples from her own career to illustrate how a new field of science had paved the way for unexpected discoveries and revolutionized a technology that closely related to daily life. She also emphasized that an integrated approach is needed to tackle global challenges, for which support to curiosity-driven research and safeguarding of academic freedom are the key.
Antoine Petit, explained that he did not find it a good idea to set curiosity-driven research against the impact of science on society. Rather, he argued, the scientific community is liable for transferring the knowledge to the public and bridging the gap between pure research and societal application.
Himla Soodyall focused on the notion of curiosity and said that humankind have an innate capacity for curiosity, for looking for the reasons behind things and trying to come up with responses. According to Soodyall, human solidarity and social justice are also driven by this curiosity.
The five presentations were followed by a panel discussion. All panelists agreed that curiosity-based research is essential and all countries should maintain their basic research capacities which is the ground for innovation. Consensus was also reached that communication between experienced scientists and younger generations was important and benefited both sides. Moreover, scientists should also aim at producing policy-oriented science reports rather than confining their research within the academic circle.
In the end, all panelists called for the scientific community to stay open-minded towards blue-sky thinking, to listen to the views of scientists of different traditions or ages, and to encourage interconnections between the various fields of science to arrive at a truly integrated approach towards global challenges.