If the past two years have taught us anything, it is that research can provide solutions to global challenges.
Without research, we would not have the benefit of highly effective and safe vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. We would not understand how the virus spreads, and how important masking is as a public health measure. In other words, we would not have the tools that will help us turn the corner on this deadly pandemic.
As we celebrate research that provides direct benefits to our everyday lives, it is important to recognize that many of these discoveries originated as open-ended explorations, questions asked not with personal or corporate gain in mind, but because the asker wanted to know the answer. Princeton is a place that encourages the pursuit of open-ended questions of the kind that can lead to unexpected places and, in some cases, to great societal rewards. Whether the research is aimed broadly at enriching human knowledge or aimed at a specific challenge, curiosity is often the starting point.
This year’s Nobel Prize winners, five of whom have substantial ties to Princeton, remind us of the impact of open-ended, curiosity-driven research. Two faculty members received Nobel Prizes, in chemistry and physics, and three alumni won Nobel Prizes, one for peace and two for economic sciences. Physics Nobelist Syukuro Manabe, a senior meteorologist who has been at Princeton since 1968, earned the prize for work that laid the foundation for the development of current climate models. Manabe stated of his research, “I was doing it just because of my curiosity. I really enjoyed studying climate change.”
David MacMillan, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry, was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for making catalysts from inexpensive organic materials. Little did he know at the time that the innovation would transform the manufacture of products like pharmaceuticals, clothing and shampoo. “What we care about is trying to invent chemistry that has an impact on society and can do some good,” MacMillan said, “and I am thrilled to have a part in that.”
These are sentiments that most of our faculty researchers at Princeton can endorse, whether we are conducting open-ended, theoretical work or, as you’ll read in these pages, trying to address societal challenges such as preventing pandemics, treating cancer, or protecting our environment.
At Princeton, research and curiosity are integrally woven into the endeavors of our undergraduates and graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, faculty and research staff. I believe these values help explain Princeton’s disproportionate share of Nobels this year.
And when the next pandemic strikes — or when we are called upon as a society to address the consequences of our continued reliance on fossil fuels — curiosity will be one of the drivers that spurs our researchers to bold explorations, some producing tangible benefits for humankind, and others enriching our intellect.
Pablo G. Debenedetti Dean for Research Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering