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The Pot of Gold, the Crazy Race and the Stab in the Back

the basic science

Knowing and explaining natural phenomena are the great purposes of basic science. Purposes that rarely involve inventing useful or salable things (eg, glucose-free sweeteners, rejuvenating facial creams or biodegradable plastics).

Researchers who are immersed in the melting pot of basic science do not usually deal with immediate practical problems.[2] Which in itself is not a problem – strictly speaking, it can be good news. After all, it is not uncommon for theoretical scientists to find simple, viable and cheap solutions to practical problems that until then were faced in a less efficient or more expensive way.[3]

Over the past 10, 15 or 20 decades, many technological innovations have emerged or been perfected as by-products of unassuming basic research. Or even as practical variations around a theme already sufficiently clarified by science, to the point that the accumulated knowledge becomes the basis for the work of technicians, engineers or applied scientists.[4]

Basic research typology

Countless scientific articles appear every day. Only a few, however, will be able to emerge from anonymity and acquire some relevance, to the point of becoming a provocation or a guide (albeit momentary) for other authors.

The scientific community evaluates the relevance of research according to the impact it has on the already established body of knowledge, notably in the case of basic science. Most of the time, the impact is merely local (ie, restricted to the limits of a small area of ​​knowledge); sometimes, however, the impact spills over and reaches neighboring areas or even distant disciplines.

Depending on the nature and scope of the results obtained, we could perhaps organize scientific research into three broad categories: (1) those that promote conceptual advances; (2) those that promote methodological innovations; and (3) case studies (ie, research that tests previously established concepts and methods).

Most searches are ordinary and trivial

The three categories above, of course, differ from each other, notably in terms of impact and relevance. Researches that promote conceptual or methodological advances, for example, are by definition the ones that make the most noise. In the end, it is thanks to this type of advance that we learned to look at the world with different eyes and, more specifically, learned to differentiate the wheat from the chaff.

For illustration purposes, consider the magnitude of the changes that occurred due to the work of the following authors: (i) Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1553) and the replacement of geocentrism by heliocentrism; (ii) Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) and the emergence of genetics, in 1900; (iii) Georges Lemaître (1894-1966) and the Big Bang model to explain the origin of the Universe (see chap. 4); and (iv) Francis Crick (1916-2004), James Watson (born 1928) and the double helix model for the DNA molecule.[5]

But we must not deceive ourselves: The great advances referred to above are more the exception than the rule. Most scientific research consists of case studies of an ordinary or even trivial nature.[6] Research that, at best, will be classified as experimental trials conducted with the purpose of testing hypotheses or methods already present in the literature.

solving puzzles

Natural phenomena – especially the great mysteries of the world – seem to have a hypnotic power over the human mind. It is not surprising to realize that some of them become the muses of many scholars, including scientists and laymen with brilliant minds.[7]

Scientific research, notably that of an experimental nature, is solving puzzles. One after the other, in an incessant and seemingly endless march. Work becomes routine and sometimes boring.[8] So, even though solving puzzles can be a rewarding and deeply comforting activity, everyday life doesn't quite have the glamor or frisson that some imagine.

In the words of Thomas Kuhn (1982, p. 77-8): “Normal science, a puzzle-solving activity, is a highly cumulative enterprise, extremely successful in terms of its goal, the continual expansion of knowledge. scope and accuracy of scientific knowledge. In all these respects it conforms very precisely to the usual image of scientific work. However, a common product of the scientific enterprise is missing here. Normal science does not set out to discover new facts or theory; when it succeeds, it does not find them. However, new and unsuspected phenomena are periodically discovered by scientific research; Scientists have constantly invented radically new theories. Historical examination suggests that the scientific enterprise has developed a particularly efficient technique for producing surprises of this nature. If we want to reconcile this characteristic of normal science with what we said earlier, paradigm-oriented research must be a particularly effective means of inducing changes in those very paradigms that guide it. This is the role of fundamental novelties concerning facts and theories. Inadvertently produced by a game played according to a set of rules, their assimilation requires the elaboration of a new set. Once they are incorporated into science, the scientific enterprise is never the same – at least for the specialists whose field of study is affected by these novelties”.

Struggle for primacy and recognition

Equating and solving problems inherent to your research area – and being recognized for it – are among the greatest ambitions a scientist can aspire to, especially in the field of basic science. That statement holds true for professional scientists, of course, but it holds true for amateurs as well.

The life and work of men and women of science are still shrouded in a lot of fantasy, a lot of misinformation. For example, the idea that scientists are detached or even slovenly individuals. A stereotype that perhaps derives from the belief that they are fully dedicated to what they do – ie, their cognitive capacity would be fully mobilized to equate and solve the great mysteries of the world.

Not so, especially these days.[9] Strictly speaking, however, the heart of the matter here is different. Our dilemma is the following: What kind of reward is being offered that is capable of mobilizing the attention of scientists? After all, scientists may be absent-minded or careless, but they are not entirely without vanity. It is a fact that men and women involved in scientific research are not always after material rewards. Which is not to say that they are completely devoid of ambition. Scientists are not angels, nor do they have a more refined sense of altruism or collectivity than other individuals.

What kind of reward would then be attracting their attention? [10] Apparently, many scientists simply believe that the big reward is a pot of gold that is hidden over the rainbow: primacy and recognition for their discoveries or inventions. (Just remember that the size of the reward tends to be directly proportional to the size of the finds.)


It bears repeating: scientists are participating in an endless race – ie, permanent disputes (veiled or explicit) with their peers. Competition and the ensuing animosities seem to be inevitable. But that's not the worst aspect of the story. Worst of all, disputes almost always result in some form of sabotage, as routinely happens in the corporate world (eg, plagiarism, espionage, and patent theft).[11]

In short, contrary to what some imagine, the biggest problem in the scientific arena is not exactly the competition that is established between scientists. The big problem arises when competitors (individuals, groups, etc.) do not accept dueling on equal terms. They avoid or flee the duel, but they want the laurels for themselves. Therefore, whenever they have the chance, many of them will not hesitate to stab their rivals in the back.[12]

*Felipe APL Costa is a biologist and writer. Author, among other books by What is darwinism.


Bunge, M. 1987 [1980]. epistemology, SP, TA Queiroz.

Costa, FAPL. 2017. The Flying Evolutionist & Other Inventors of Modern Biology. Viçosa, Author's Edition.

Costa, FAPL. what is darwinism. Viçosa, Author's Edition.

Drigalsgi, W. 1964 [1951]. men against microbes. BH, Itatiaia.

Fisher, L. 2004 [2002]. Science in everyday life. RJ, J Zahar.

Horgan, J. 1998 [1996]. the end of science. SP, C Letters.

Koestler, A. 1989 [1959]. Man and the Universe. SP, Ibrasa.

Kuhn, T.S. 1982 [1962]. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. SP, Perspective.

Latour, B & Woolgar, S. 1997 [1979]. the lab life. RJ, R Dumara.

Losee, J. 1979 [1972]. Historical introduction to the philosophy of science. BH, Itatiaia & Edusp.

Merton, R.K. 1977 [1973]. The sociology of science, 2 v. Madrid, Alliance.

Watson, J.D. 1987 [1968]. the double helix. Lisbon, Gradiva.

Zarur, GCL. 1994. the scientific arena. Campinas, Associated Authors & Flacso.


[1] For examples, details and discussion, see Fisher (2004).

[2] The scientific arena (sensu Zarur 1994) is a highly competitive place, especially in the field of basic research, where rewards tend to be of an exclusively immaterial and symbolic nature. In the context of applied or technological research, competition tends to be more mundane and down-to-earth, as it generally entails material dividends.

[3] Well-known example of serendipity (eng., Serendipity) involves the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) – for a period description, see Drigalsgi (1964).

[4] Applied science does not differ from pure or basic science in terms of intellectual quality, epistemological precedence, or historical priority. The difference is one of focus: applied science aims to meet specific needs. For details and discussions, see Losee (1979) and Bunge (1987).

[5] On Copernicus, see Koestler (1989); about the others, Costa (2017 and 2019).

[6] There is, of course, a lot of variation. Some case studies are comprehensive and pretentious, many others, however, are merely protocol. I would dare to say that the vast majority of postgraduate theses (master's and doctorate) produced in the country fall into this last category – protocol case studies. They are little or no ambitious research – ie, case studies that are increasingly parochial, predictable and, ultimately, little or nothing relevant. It is an understandable situation, but it is worrying. I won't expand on this subject, but it is worth highlighting one of the factors behind our situation: the tight deadline. Nowadays, Brazilian students complete their postgraduate studies in a maximum period of six years – two years of Masters and four years of Doctorate. During this period, the student must be able to (1) take a minimum number of disciplines; (2) conduct a research work and, finally, (3) write a detailed and understandable report (at least by colleagues in the area) regarding the previous item. Faced with such tight deadlines, student training lost a lot in quality, becoming increasingly limited, more parochial. The research project, which in the past was formulated by the candidate himself, today tends to be a cake recipe that the supervisor presents or even imposes on him. And the worst: research no longer puts its chips on minimally daring, risky things – whether in conceptual terms or in methodological terms. The cards are placed in one and the same place: the advisor's thematic basket, a basket that is almost always small and monothematic. Thus, for security reasons, the practical part of the research (eg, laboratory or field work) must be simple and secure, so that it can be completed in a few months – two or three, say, or, in the case of a doctorate, between six months and a year or, who knows, even a little longer. It is not surprising to notice that the areas and themes that require more time-consuming field work have been banned from the system. Thus, as more than half of the scientific research that is conducted today in the country has to do with master's or doctoral theses, Brazilian science avoids or simply does not get involved with issues that are more difficult or laborious. Under normal conditions of temperature and pressure, I would say that the ultimate purpose of postgraduate studies should be to form a new generation of well-thinking people, including real scientists (read: people with autonomy and a critical sense, to the point of being able to conduct new research on its own, increasingly comprehensive and ambitious, in the same area in which it was trained or in related areas). What we are witnessing, however, is something else: we are only producing people with a degree (read: people formed in a hurry, in any case, unable to plan and conduct research that deviates from the cake recipe that was presented to them in graduate school). The fact is that the Brazilian system should create judgment and start prioritizing what really matters. I won't go any further, I'll just leave a final punctual comment here. To begin with, I am of the opinion that the system should prioritize quality, not quantity. Stop and think: what is more worthwhile for society as a whole, training 200 good scientists each year or distributing 15.000 master's degrees and another 5.000 doctor's degrees? After all, that is what we are doing: handing out diplomas. Over the last 30-40 years, the preferential option of the rulers has been for quantity, for make-believe. (I suspect that the creators who started all of this, back there, believed that quantity would one day result in quality...) The problem became particularly serious and evident from the first FHC administration (1995-1998). The roots may be older, but I don't remember – and I write literally from memory, without consulting books or articles – of any previous representative promoting fanfare around the number of students (masters and doctors) who graduated every year. It was from the 1990s onwards that the number of graduates became a metric used as advertising.

[7] For first-person accounts, see Horgan (1998). Two comments. First. There are brilliant minds everywhere – roaming the streets or incarcerated in prisons. Consider the case of the American Christopher Havens. In 2011, he was sentenced to 25 years. In prison, he began to study mathematics on his own. In 2020, he published some of his findings in a technical article – see article 'An inmate's love for math leads to new discoveries', by Maria Cerruti, published on the website The Conversation, on 14/5/2020. Second. It should be noted that the terms scientist, researcher and scholar (or erudite) are not synonymous. The term scholar is used here as equivalent to the term scholar (ing.). Not every scholar is a scientist, just as not every scientist is a scholar. Another term that gives rise to misunderstandings is intellectual.

[8] It is not uncommon to see that purely mechanical or repetitive phases are usually outsourced – eg, given to graduate students. In the opinion of some observers, the daily life of a laboratory evokes what happens in an office or even on the stock exchange – see Latour & Woolgar (1997).

[9] For a recent portrait, see Latour & Woolgar (1997).

[10] And more: There are not few professional scientists who are only occupied with administrative functions, without maintaining a line of research of their own. For a pioneering discussion of this and other sociological themes, see Merton (1977).

[11] For a recent and scandalous case of industrial piracy, see the article 'The obscure business of Judge Gabriela Hardt's father that Lava Jato ignored', by Leandro Demori, published on the site The Great War, on 6/4/2023. Sponsored by a Canadian bank, the aforementioned case involves the theft of a Petrobras industrial secret by a former employee, retired chemical engineer and father of a federal judge who recently became famous for the plagiarism she promoted (and, it seems, still promotes ) in their sentences.

[12] For a first-person account, see Watson (1987).

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