Campus & community, Research

Carol Christ on the importance of foundational research

Chancellor Carol Christ
Chancellor Carol Christ (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)
a male student taking a selfie with chancellor carol christ

“Following our curiosity and celebrating the act of discovery, it turns out, can pay off many times over in the long term,” Chancellor Carol Christ, center, says. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

One of the great joys of my position as chancellor is the opportunity it gives me to learn about the extraordinary scholarly and scientific work taking place across our campus. One day I might introduce an important lecture by Professor of English Victoria Kahn, and then an hour later meet with faculty thinking about new directions in the biological sciences. Last week, I was delighted to speak at a donor event in San Francisco that brought together more than a dozen of our most distinguished faculty — all involved in fundamental research at Berkeley.

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In contrast to applied research, fundamental research is driven by our natural curiosity about the universe and our place in it. It is not tied to a desired outcome or pegged to a specific application or even intended to result in any immediate “payoff.” In time, however, discoveries in such research can become the foundation for entirely new industries and can benefit society tremendously. Today’s computers, for example, could not exist without research in pure mathematics conducted a century ago. Similarly, it was fundamental research presented in an obscure paper by Albert Einstein in 1917 that ultimately led to the invention of the laser decades later. Following our curiosity and celebrating the act of discovery, it turns out, can pay off many times over in the long term.

As I watched presentations last week, from Professor Bethanie Edwards in Earth and Planetary Science to Professor Randy Schekman in Cell and Developmental Biology, it became clearer than ever to me

Universities like ours are some of the chief places where this kind of research is celebrated, cherished and advanced.”

– Carol Christ

that institutions like Berkeley are essential to continued investment in foundational research. Because the benefits of this work may not be immediately evident, it relies on institutions that pursue science with a primary mission to serve the greater good, even in areas where for-profit enterprises do not see market potential. Universities like ours are some of the chief places where this kind of research is celebrated, cherished and advanced.

In the thriving Bay Area, there are all manner of exciting events to see and wonderful activities to take part in — but only at an institution like Berkeley can you hear directly from world-leading researchers about the work they’re doing to advance their disciplines to new boundaries. I hope you’ll find time to go to their lectures, take their classes, read their work and otherwise take advantage of this during your time here.