The debate about funding of basic scientific research

science-funding1by Massimo Pigliucci

On the one hand we have politicians — usually, indeed almost invariably, conservatives and sometimes libertarians; on the other hand we have scientists — usually, indeed almost invariably, people whose work is in the corners of science most remote from any practical application.

The debate is about whether, and to what extent, the government — i.e., taxpayers — should fund basic scientific research that has no clear, or even hinted at, bearing on practical issues that might benefit the public. It’s a good question, and scientists should ponder it seriously, rather than dismiss it as yet another attempt by right wing ideologues to undermine the practice of science in areas that are ideologically problematic for said politicians (even though, quite clearly, that does seem to be the major political motivation at play here).

Take a recent article in the Pacific Standard by Michael White, entitled “Why Curiosity Should Drive Our Scientific Agenda” [1]. White comes down unequivocally on the side of scientists, belittling the politicians. But I think he moves far too quickly, without giving the issue due consideration.

He begins with what he labels a “paradoxical” claim: “If we want tangible, scientific solutions to society’s urgent problems, then we need to invest in basic, curiosity-driven research that’s not motivated by its potential for practical applications,” proceeding to quote the director of the US Government chief science agency during World War II (the predecessor of the National Science Foundation): “Basic research is scientific capital.” At some level, this is obviously true. But for an evidence-based community like the scientific one, the argument seems exceedingly thin, largely based on vague analogies and anecdotal evidence.

Let’s start with the analogies: notice the use above of terms like “invest” and “capital.” This isn’t a defense of scientific inquiry for its own sake, in the name of humanity’s thirst for knowledge about the universe. Rather, it is couched in straightforward utilitarian language. Okay, then, if I am asked to invest in an enterprise, I need to see a reasonable business plan, and more crucially I need to be convinced that it is a good business plan, that there aren’t much better ways to invest my money, even though the proposed one is still likely to yield results.

Which brings me to the second point: the evidence. White’s first attempt in that direction takes off from the recent publicity about CRISPR/Cas9, a new DNA editing technology of great promise (“game changing,” as he puts it). But the devil is in the details. While it is true that the research that eventually led to CRISPR/Cas9 began when a group of scientists got curious about a peculiar pattern of repetitive DNA in some species of bacteria (turns out that pattern functions as a sort of immune system to protect bacteria from viruses). But as White himself adds later on: “The key discovery came during a 2007 study conducted by scientists at the food company Danisco, which was looking for ways to protect its yogurt-making bacterial cultures from viral infections.” Oh, so it wasn’t just a matter of basic scientific curiosity: a private company made possible the crucial step, and they were looking for a solution to a very specific practical problem.

White tells us that other success stories “aren’t hard to find,” but he links to a number of articles that barely substantiate his claim. The first one is a paper in BioScience by Patricia Brennan and collaborators [2] arguing that unusual evolutionary phenomena (“oddball science,” as they put it) have led researchers to crucial practical discoveries. They list a number of cases, ranging from technological applications of biomimicry to insight into medical research triggered by evolutionary research. But it is not at all clear that more targeted research would not have yielded the same results faster and cheaper (i.e., the authors lack historical controls), and at any rate the article is a collection of cherry picked anecdotes. How many cases of basic research led nowhere? What’s the ratio between success and failure? What are the costs associated with the failures?

White then mentions a recent report of the National Academy of Science entitled “Furthering America’s Research Enterprise” [3]. You can get the paperback for $64, or register on the site and download the pdf. As it turns out, much of the evidence in the report is, again, anecdotal (“case studies”). There are graphs and numbers, but they mostly summarize how much money the various federal agencies got over the years, and how that compares to privately funded research in this sector or that. None of which gets to the core question. There is a quantitative measure that potentially may shed some light on the link between basic and applied research, the so-called STAR METRICS (this, believe it or not, is an acronym, standing for: Science and Technology for America’s Reinvestment: Measuring the Effect of Research on Innovation, Competitiveness and Science — and people say government bureaucrats have no imagination!). But S-M is an ongoing effort in its early stages, and even the preliminary data is not easily accessible: “at the moment, data access is limited, and the shape of an eventual data sharing policy is not clear.” Moreover, S-M’s goals are rather modest: “The goal of Level 1 is to streamline and standardize data for reporting on the impact of federal research and development (R&D) spending on job creation.” Job creation, not practical applications. They are not the same thing.

The general sense one gets from the report is that: i) it is very difficult to actually generate quantitative data addressing the question of the links between basic and applied science; and ii) nobody has really done it so far, though people are beginning to think about it. I know little about the inner workings of capitalism, but I seriously doubt any private company would get very far with that sort of evidence, if it were to ask for a loan from a bank or a check from an investor.

The third source of evidence mentioned by White is a report issued by MIT entitled “The Future Postponed” and published in 2015 [4]. The bulk of it is a series of short essays on individual areas where the authors argue that we need more funding for research (basic or not, really): Alzheimer’s disease, cybersecurity, space exploration, plant science, quantum information technology, fusion energy, infectious diseases, defense technology, photonics, synthetic biology, materials discovery, robotics, batteries. Notice how most of the listed areas are incredibly broad. To say that the report is long on rhetoric and (very) short on data is an understatement.

And then there is what I call the “poetic” approach to justify very expensive basic research. For instance, my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson’s advocacy of manned missions to Mars [5]. Tyson’s goal is a good one: inspiring a new generation of scientists. But is that goal worth the billions necessary to fund a very dangerous human Mars landing? Does Neil have any evidence that a significant number of current scientists were, indeed, inspired by the golden era of manned space flight that brought us to the Moon? (An enterprise, by the way, that has actually brought in relatively little scientific payoff that couldn’t have been achieved via automated space probes, and the funding of which was certainly not motivated by scientific curiosity, but rather by political propaganda and perceived military advantage.) No, let me guess: the evidence is anecdotal, and it wholly lacks a proper control or serious historical or sociological analysis.

None of this, of course, should be construed as support for the blabbering statements of White’s political targets: Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the latter being the Chair of the House Science Committee. Lamar has argued that “the academic community forgets that federal science funding should be in the national interest,” and then proceeds to attempt to defund research on climate change, which one would think is the quintessential example of a scientific “national interest.” But ideologues like Smith need to be addressed seriously, not with a general waving of the hand in the direction of the alleged great benefits of basic science.

Truly, science advocates have two choices (which, however, are not mutually exclusive): either provide convincing, evidence-based links demonstrating a strong causal connection between basic and applied research (not just cherry picked examples), or stop pretending that most scientists do what they do in the national interest or because some major practical benefit will come out of it, because they don’t.

When I was submitting grant proposals to NSF, I was required to also fill out a section about the “broader impact” of my research (which was on genotype-environment interactions in a species of weedy plants). It was always an afterthought, a boilerplate that got copied from proposal to proposal. And so were those of most of my colleagues. The reason is that — even though I was actually studying something for which practical applications were not at all far fetched (e.g., weed control, invasive biology), that’s not why I was doing it. I was doing it because I had a genuine basic curiosity about the science involved. Indeed, had NSF really only funded basic research that had a direct link to applications I could have done pretty much the same thing on a different model system, say a weed or an invasive species with well demonstrated commercial effects. And mine was by far not even close to being the most narrowly focused and idiosyncratic piece of science carried out within my own department, let alone in the US at large.

I can just hear the outrage of some readers, and especially colleagues, who might point the finger at my current occupation and note that philosophers, of all academics, surely have very little to contribute to the national interest. I could respond by pointing out that writing about ethics, political theory, or science policy, are all very much valuable contributions to society. Or I could point out that philosophical scholarship costs a minute fraction of scientific research. But that would be exactly the wrong way to go about it. It is time we bite the bullet: we are a prosperous nation that already allocates the majority of its resources to truly wasteful activities, such as those aimed at funding the increasingly misnamed Department of “Defense.” Even within science, NSF’s budget (which goes to fund the majority of basic science) stands at about 7.3 billion dollars, while NIH’s (only one of a large number of federal agencies funding applied research) stands at 31.3 billion — which means that we already do give a large fraction of our science money to applied research.

So let’s be honest: the reason to give money to basic science is the same that should be used to give money to the humanities and the arts: because we are a rich country that can afford to spend a fraction of its wealth on things that are not practical, on continuing the human quest for knowledge, understanding and beauty. That these things matter to people, I mean, taxpayers, is demonstrated by the fact that they keep flocking to art museums, philosophy talks and museums of science and natural history. Because their lives are immensely enriched by exposure to ideas that are not just about curing a disease or putting bread on the table, as absolutely crucial as those necessities are. Moreover, in the bargain we do get to convince a lot of smart people (we call them university professors) to teach our kids about all this wonderful stuff. Occasionally, they may even advance our cures for cancer.

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] Why Curiosity Should Drive Our Scientific Agenda, by M. White, Pacific Standard, 22 May 2015.

[2] Oddball Science: Why Studies of Unusual Evolutionary Phenomena Are Crucial, by P.L.R. Brennan et al., BioScience, 3 March 2014.

[3] Furthering America’s Research Enterprise, National Academies Press, 2014.

[4] The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit. MIT, 2015.

[5] Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Need For a Space Program, Rationally Speaking podcast, 28 March 2010.

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41 thoughts on “The debate about funding of basic scientific research

  1. Hi Massimo,

    So let’s be honest: the reason to give money to basic science is the same that should be used to give money to the humanities and the arts: …

    I half agree with you. That is certainly a major reason for funding science. If one was going to justify building the LHC to find the Higgs boson one would do it on the human interest in knowledge and understanding, not on direct applications.

    And, as you say, there certainly is enough interest among the public to justify it, given that the money spent on basic science is modest compared to other things (even the big-ticket items such as the LHC, when spread over the number of years and number of countries involved; e.g. the UK spend on the LHC is about 0.003% of GDP).

    One can also note that over the last 25 years the world has spent vastly more on watching Jurassic Park movies than it has on dinosaur research.

    Similarly, one could not justify my own field, looking for planets around other stars, in terms of applications or spin-offs, and yet the public interest is huge. Last week I wrote a press release on our discovery of the planet WASP-142b that is now on 650 news websites world-wide in 20 different languages (though admittedly it was the human-interest angle rather than the science that was responsible for that).

    But, where I don’t fully agree with you is that we should not give up on the idea that basic scientific research really does amply repay the investment in the long run. The problem is that the “long run” can be decades, and tracing impacts and consequences over that time-scale and over complex societies is near impossible.

    But, as an example, let’s take the invention of quantum mechanics. Nowadays, as a wild guess, I’d say that perhaps half the world economy is enabled by devices containing computer chips, and every such device depends on our understanding of quantum mechanics. That’s tens of trillions of worth. (Apple alone is a trillion-dollar company in round numbers.) That might have taken a century to develop, but the comparatively cheap investment in basic physics that led to quantum mechanics could perhaps be humankind’s best ever investment in pay-back terms. Provided we are looking for a pay back over many decades, rather than in 5 to 10 years, the long-term business case for funding basic science is sound.

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  2. The debate over government funding of scientific funding appears to be a uniquely American one. I don’t think that the same kind of debate would be held in European countries, for example. One can find several publications at the libertarian Cato Institute* which argue that the “private sector” can fund all scientific research. The Cato economic philosophy is, in effect, an American religion, and as long as it’s held by a significant number of legislators in the US Congress, this debate will go on.

    * e.g., http://www.cato.org/blog/government-funding-science-crucial

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  3. I’m all for funding basic research. And I’m all for research that is driven by raw curiosity.

    It is unrealistic to expect funding agencies (whether private or government) to write blank checks. We should not be surprised that they pick and choose which projects to fund.

    I see the biggest problem here as the universities. They should never have made receiving research grants part of their promotion and tenure procedures. In doing that, they made a Faustian agreement. They have allowed outside agencies to have too much influence.

    An outside research grant is its own reward. The universities do not need to put that into their personnel procedures. Universities should encourage researchers who are driven by curiosity and are willing to do without external grants so that they can take the research in the direction that their curiosity demands.

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  4. I’m going to kind of pick up with Phillip’s brief comment plus one observation by Massimo.

    First, per a new piece by Naomi Oreskes, I’m tired of climate change denialists talk over and over about “government science.” http://www.thenation.com/article/210009/climate-deniers-are-quickly-bringing-about-their-own-worst-nightmare

    They sound like Adolf Hitler in 1933, talking about “Jewish science.” So I just pulled Godwin’s Law out of my back pocket. So sue me.

    Back to Phillip’s link. “Bureaucratic inefficiencies” of course exist in the private sector too. The first problem with most libertarianism is that it assumes “bureaucracy” is somehow limited to the governmental sector.

    As for the donations it cites? The amounts are small potatoes compared to government funding. They’re also, often, “vanity” donations. At universities, they usually entail endowing “named” chairs of departments or programs, with the naming of course honoring the donor.

    Second, I think about Ben Franklin’s famous (but quite possibly apocryphal) comment about the Montgolfiers’ balloon: “But of what use is a newborn baby?” Beyond that, money for research science can lead to ideas, or even products, that weren’t originally envisioned.

    Third, many people confuse “science” and “technology.” That gets back to guaranteed benefits.

    Fourth, per Massimo’s piece, the government can “oversell” things, as he notes.

    But, so can the private sector. Elon Musk’s thoughts on Mars travel, vs. the reality of the difficulties involved, are laughable. It also, per my point No. 1, seems to be a vanity project.

    Fifth, per the donations to universities and such, is the issue of strings being attached. The Templeton Foundation, with different scientists and philosophers offering different takes on its grants and prizes and strings or lack thereof, readily comes to mind.

    Or, per my link, or Massimo’s comment? The Koch brothers and others funding pseudoscience, or a step or two short of that, seizing on gimmicks to be “skeptical” enough on climate change to gum up the works.

    Or, worse yet, rich donors to the Discovery Institute. (Speaking of, climate change denialists strike me as like young-earth creationists. The claims of “just being skeptical” are like, when legitimate paleontology finds a new species that fills in a “missing link,” and then YECs say, “You now have two missing links.”)

    This is even more true in the social sciences. Do we want the Koch brothers funding economic research? Or, to the degree that some rich libertarians tilt in the direction of a Michael Shermer or D.J. Grothe, funding research on either “race” as a biological idea, or the sociological construction of race?

    I don’t.

    I speak from an analogous situation professionally. Rich individuals buying newspapers at distressed prices, or setting up new media, and to push a political angle. Yes, publishers had agendas in the past, but now they’re throwing their money around like confetti.

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  5. It would be interesting to see someone attempt to quantify the projected benefits vs. the disbenefits of any single piece of scientific research. I wouldn’t even know how to begin so complex are the issues.

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  6. This essay took a typical Massimo turn. I was with you for the first three quarters until you started to justify wasting public money on the humanities by pointing to the waste of money on the sciences. I’m pretty sure an extreme minority of the population visits art museums. And no doubt tons of scientific studies have no promise of benefitting the general public. Both the humanities and the sciences waste public money, though! That’s a scandal!

    You forgot to mention that scientists and university professors are an interest group. They’re just like any other interest group that tries to siphon money from the federal budget, with no intention of benefitting the “general public.” Let’s be truly honest. They want money so they can make a living. They’ll take what they can get. Appeal to the public interest is just a story they tell themselves and other like-minded people so they can fancy themselves more virtuous than they really are.

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  7. But, as an example, let’s take the invention of quantum mechanics. Nowadays, as a wild guess, I’d say that perhaps half the world economy is enabled by devices containing computer chips

    That is yesterday’s news, by very a long way. Does the name Bell Labs say anything to you? If we continued to rely on the universities alone we would still be using the PDP 11(remember them?). The relentless advance in computing has been driven by industrial labs. Of course basic research is necessary and an important contribution but it is the hungry, relentless, and furiously driven pace of industrial research which has made all the difference.

    What is the real mission of universities? Teaching or research? Yes, I know it is a combination of the two but the balance is changing as industrial labs do more. As a former employer I can tell you that we expect better, more highly educated graduates who are flexible and innovative. That is your first priority, that is what we expect from you.

    In my company, we(management) were required to spend time working in customer facing activities in branch offices. What a salutary experience that was as it forced us to face the realities of our business and discover what our customers really wanted and what they really experienced.

    I suggest that the universities do the same, leave their ivory tower for intervals and also work in industry. You will be shocked by the experience but when you return to your ivory towers you will have a much clearer understanding of your mission. It is not for nothing that ‘ivory towers’ is a pejorative term!

    We commissioned research and what a dismal experience that turned out to be. That failure was held against me for a long time which seemed to prove the truth of the old adage, you are only as good as your last failure.

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  8. Let’s be truly honest. They want money so they can make a living. They’ll take what they can get.

    So, what’s wrong with that?
    It is the appeal to competing self interests that is the basis of democracy and free enterprise. It is the competition between self interest that is the purifying furnace of democracy. When someone cries foul they are sure to be one of the losers.

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  9. Coel,

    “One can also note that over the last 25 years the world has spent vastly more on watching Jurassic Park movies than it has on dinosaur research”

    While I sympathize with that sort of observation, let’s remember that Jurassic Park wasn’t financed with taxpayers’ money…

    “let’s take the invention of quantum mechanics. Nowadays, as a wild guess, I’d say that perhaps half the world economy is enabled by devices containing computer chips, and every such device depends on our understanding of quantum mechanics. That’s tens of trillions of worth.”

    Right. I’m actually pessimistic about the feasibility of conducting quantitative studies on the basic > applied relationship. But then I’m asking for intellectual honesty: let’s state clearly that we have compelling, yet only anecdotal examples to provide; let’s then add that there are other reasons to fund basic research; and conclude with something along the lines of “and it’s not much money anyway.”

    Philip,

    “The debate over government funding of scientific funding appears to be a uniquely American one. I don’t think that the same kind of debate would be held in European countries, for example”

    No, I don’t think so. Certainly the debate is particularly acrimonious and ideologically motivated in the US, and yes, most European countries don’t have the equivalent of US-style libertarianism. But growing up in Italy as a budding scientist I was constantly aware of public discussions about funding universities and the National Research Council. And, frankly, I think those discussion ought to occur, and scientists ought to take them seriously.

    Bill,

    “Do you really think that applied science could accomplish anything in the total absence of a theoretical background?”

    I never said nor implied such a radical claim. But are you going to argue that it is not the case that a large fraction of basic research has had no practical impact whatsoever, that for much of that research there was no reason to think it would, and that the scientists involved didn’t do it for any practical benefit to humanity whatsoever?

    Neil,

    “I see the biggest problem here as the universities. They should never have made receiving research grants part of their promotion and tenure procedures. In doing that, they made a Faustian agreement. They have allowed outside agencies to have too much influence.”

    I disagree. Here I make a big distinction between private and public money: universities should accept the former only under very strict conditions, while the latter is provided with very few strings attached (trust me, I’ve written plenty of final reports on my own NSF grants!), as they should be. The issue I’m raising is at the source: how do we decide as a society how much money to give to research that we have no reason to believe it will ever produce anything of practical use for humanity?

    “Universities should encourage researchers who are driven by curiosity and are willing to do without external grants so that they can take the research in the direction that their curiosity demands.”

    In many fields there is no such thing as research without grants, nowadays. Try being a particle physicist or a molecular biologist and run a lab without funding.

    Peter,

    “It would be interesting to see someone attempt to quantify the projected benefits vs. the disbenefits of any single piece of scientific research. I wouldn’t even know how to begin so complex are the issues.”

    Agreed. See my comment to Coel above. But it gets worse, actually: there is now a frenzy within the academy — particularly public universities — to quantify everything, to “assess” programs and faculty, and so forth. The (entirely predictable) result is that administrators quantify what’s easy to quantify and dismiss the rest as “qualitative,” even though the qualitative stuff is often the most crucial to the quality of academic and research programs.

    Jake,

    “This essay took a typical Massimo turn”

    Well, it does bear my signature…

    “I was with you for the first three quarters until you started to justify wasting public money on the humanities by pointing to the waste of money on the sciences. I’m pretty sure an extreme minority of the population visits art museums”

    I’m pretty sure you are exactly wrong on this. Google it.

    “You forgot to mention that scientists and university professors are an interest group. They’re just like any other interest group that tries to siphon money from the federal budget, with no intention of benefitting the “general public.””

    First, as it has already been pointed out, what, exactly is wrong with scientists and professors wanting to be paid for the job they do? Second, in my now multi-decade experience in the academy I’ve rarely if ever seen a colleague who was in it for the money (and usually those are the ones that get most of their income from consulting — more often than not in law and finances).

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  10. One problem with this kind of discussion is that ‘impact’, ‘applied’ or ‘practical benefit’ is usually implicitly understood in an extremely narrow sense: Can we get a new invention out of it, preferably a medicine or a technical gadget? Okay, if that is what one is after then most research is really without practical benefit.

    But that is a fairly myopic view. There are lots of practical benefits to be had that neither cure cancer nor increase some company’s profit margin. Basic taxonomic research for example tells us what species are out there, and thus allows us to manage and preserve them, and the identification keys it produces allow us to identify and manage weeds, e.g. in biosecurity controls at customs. Those are clear practical benefits. And here is the funny thing: getting money for that kind of research appears to be much harder than getting money for a new robot to land on a comet.

    I guess what I want to say is that it is not primarily about whether something has a practical benefit for the commonwealth or not. The first and most important question, as always in our economic system, is whether something will produce profit for a private investor. If yes, you are set. If no, as how romantic or inspiring your field of research is perceived may just be a bigger factor than how applied it is.

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  11. labnut: Bell labs has historically invested quite a bit in fundamental physics research, something which seems to be changing recently. http://www.wired.com/2008/08/bell-labs-kills/

    I think it is fairly undeniable that most modern technology and knowledge of the natural world would not be possible without the scientific (and mathematical) research of the past few centuries, a lot of which was done for its own sake. So although it is true that scientists do not practice science for the sake of its applications, and most basic research does turn out to be useless, it remains true that important breakthroughs are often the unintended outgrowth of such scientific inquiry. Because it is very difficult to predict a priori what the consequences of a specific research program will be, cutting out all research that does not have immediate and obvious applications seems a bit risky and may lead to a dearth of technological (or otherwise) breakthroughs in the long run.

    Let’s take a really obvious example: modern cryptography would not be possible had people not thought to investigate the structure of prime numbers. This is something which seemed to be quite useless (Hardy famously revelled in its uselessness) and yet turned out to have concrete applications.

    I don’t think its fair to equivocate research in the humanities with research in mathematics and the sciences. Although the motivations of humanities professors and scientists may be similar in that they are both interested in exploring ideas for their own sake, one would have to work much harder to trace a modern technology back to some work in the humanities. The value of the scientific knowledge we have accumulated extends beyond ‘enriching’ our lives.

    Finally, I think Alex SL makes an important observation: that we should not equate usefulness with profit for a company. On the other hand, something like McDonalds can be very profitable by selling a product which is useless to society.

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  12. Unnecessary remarks by Jake Zielsdorf and francisrlb dismissive of the humanities, soured this thread for me. Really, if they aren’t willing to respect interests of mine, why should I support theirs? So, while I first approached this issue with intent to join discussion concerning the general value of science, I put that aside for reconsideration.

    For now, if government decides to defund the sciences, what effect will it have for the average person? That’s a dangerous question to ask the ‘average person’ these days.

    Coel remarks, “the long-term business case for funding basic science is sound.” Here’s the problem: I’ll be dead in ten years, my doctors tell me. So what do I care? Ever since my heart-attack 8 years ago, I’ve known that, and I’ve known that I really couldn’t buy the hope of re-incarnation either; so I guess I won’t be around to enjoy your wonderful science pay-back anymore.

    I suppose one might interject here – ‘your heart-attack, you survived it! Medicine! Science!’ – yeah, and health-care costs that bankrupted me. And in a society where capital is life – thanks for nothin’.

    I’ll rethink this with a cooler head. But be aware that there are millions with much these same attitudes who won’t rethink them later.

    My interest in the sciences is purely a matter of intellectual curiosity. I could give a hoot about useful applications (and am even suspicious of those applications that threaten values I hold, like those the Pentagon buys).

    Let’s take this to the market place as Jake insists, see where that takes us. Francisrib joins Alex SL in arguing “we should not equate usefulness with profit for a company.” But this is a capitalist society. It’s all about the profits – and the politics that result That’s why green technology is chasing its tail in a pen built for it by fossil-fuel corporations. The theory is overwhelmingly green – but most of us are stuck driving affordable gas-guzzlers to get to work.

    On some level, we know this. MIT’s “The Future Postponed” reads like a business prospectus (its article on Alzheimer’s apparently written by two economists?). So does science acquire knowledge? or merely produce commodities? The language oft used to defend science suggests the latter, no matter how else we protest.

    Besides: “Do you really think that applied science could accomplish anything in the total absence of a theoretical background?” Bill Skaggs remarks. “Total absence,” no; but less and less as time goes on. The CRISPR/Cas9 case is to the point; not only did technologists (not scientists) finally develop it, but apparently they weren’t even asking the theoretical questions at the time. These questions did link into theoretical research, but did they need to? I suggest not; now that technology is here as we have it today – no matter what its historic origins – it can generate its own questions and find its own solutions without checking theoretical grounding when it does. Maybe we have as much theory as our engineers need.

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  13. labnut, no serious political scientist believes there is an interest group equilibrium that redounds to the public benefit, a la the invisible hand. Rational ignorance reigns supreme in the political sphere. Interest groups can carve out rents for themselves scot-free.

    Massimo, your point about people visiting art museums and flocking to philosophy lectures (however implausible that may seem) still doesn’t justify the forced taxation of citizens to finance questionably beneficial science and humanities projects. Many citizens don’t benefit whatsoever from a lot of these projects.

    I wasn’t saying professors and researchers are in it just for the money. It’s just that they want to further their careers and study what makes them curious without care for what will benefit the general public (which goes against the positive externalities argument for publicly funded activities). Of course research needs to be judged on a case by case basis, but I’m confident in saying much research isn’t worth the money that was forcefully taken from the general public.

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  14. There might be two issues here – the utility of the openness of publicly funded research, and the long term utility of basic research. My acquaintance with corporate funded research gives me the impression that it is often a little secretive (publication in the open literature can be delayed by several years – after all it may suddenly become profitable if some additional information comes along), and short-termist (investors can make better returns elsewhere).

    The Impact of the Social Sciences: How Academics and their Research Make a Difference
    By Simon Bastow, Patrick Dunleavy, Jane Tinkler (2014) documents economic impacts of UK university research in that area.

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  15. Further to my comments

    http://sjbae.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/45340652/Rosenberg%25201990.pdf

    Since the seminal papers by Arrow and Nelson, it has been accepted by most economists that a private enterprise economy fails to provide adequate incentives for investment in knowledge production. There are several reasons for this assertion. First, there is inherently a high degree of uninsurable risk and uncertainty that increases as we move along the basic research end of the research spectrum. Secondly – and this is specific to knowledge as a commodity – it is believed that knowledge, once produced, is in some meaningful sense “on the shelf’. As a consequence, neoclassical/mainstream economics held that, once produced,
    knowledge was freely available to all, including those firms that may have made no contribution whatever to the production of the knowledge: A classic “free rider” situation.

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  16. ejwinner,

    Not everybody lives in a country with a health care system like the USA’s. We all have to die one day, but that doesn’t mean that the stuff we get to enjoy before that time becomes pointless. The question is, should everything be all about the profits? And although we do live in capitalism, it is not all about them even now, because basic science does get funded. This is not black/white but more a question of moving the Overton Window, and here pushing it a bit towards a consideration for the common good will make a lot of difference. Green technology would look a bit better already if one would abolish all subsidies for fossil and nuclear power, only those never get mentioned when subsidies for solar power are slammed. Also, I cycle to work; my colleagues who drive a turret-less tank to work every day choose to do so, nobody forces them.

    labnut, Jake Zielsdorf,

    If only the stuff should get funded that directly benefits the individual taxpayer, and only to the degree that it benefits each individual taxpayer, then one can do without taxes. Just have everything paid for by fees. But we know where that leads: Most people will be unable to afford basic services, small groups like the disabled would not have the critical mass to build up a cost-efficient service, we all lose a lot of efficiency and freedom by constantly having to pay for everything as we use it (anybody seen one of the ST-DS9 episodes playing on Ferengi-Na? One coin for using a bench in the park, one for entering the building, one for using the elevator, one for talking to the guy at reception… libertarian utopia!), and stuff that needs a bit of foresight, like dykes, a standing army or basic research, is not going to happen at all. Having a civilisation means paying taxes for things that do not directly benefit you, and others paying for things that benefit you in turn. That is just how it is. The alternative is living in the dark ages.

    The fundamental tragedy of leaving things to the free market and private investors is that a private investor will (understandably) prefer an activity that nets them personally $25M for an investment of $20M over an activity that saves the country $500M in pest control measures for the same investment. Of course any investor would be stupid to do the latter, and that is why it needs a government to do it for them with taxes.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Massimo – ,,,,” But it gets worse, actually: there is now a frenzy within the academy — particularly public universities — to quantify everything, to “assess” programs and faculty, and so forth. The (entirely predictable) result is that administrators quantify what’s easy to quantify and dismiss the rest as “qualitative,” even though the qualitative stuff is often the most crucial to the quality of academic and research programs.”

    It looks very like the situation that applied to the funded arts world in the UK in the 80’s. Suddenly everything had to be measured in terms of inputs and outputs. And as you say. all that gets measured is what can easily be measured. The entire sector became distorted in its motives and operation. It often became a game of conjuring up outputs from thin air, which isn’t so hard to do when there’s money riding on it.

    The wider question for me is whether the public-purse should fund science, but maybe that’s a different discussion.

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  18. Note to editor, please use this post (with fixed blockquote) instead of previous.

    Hi Massimo, I generally agree with the main point of the essay, though (in a sort of kicking the tires of your argument approach) might ask if there is a large difference between the “poetic” argument of Degrasse Tyson, and the idea that powerful, functioning societies ought to fund such things because they “continue the human quest for XYZ”? Other than we drop the need for empirical data to prove a claim (though Jake zielsdorf raises it on museum attendance) the basic idea seems much the same.

    Jake Zielsdorf, I used to be a libertarian but grew tired of the well worn (but poorly examined) arguments like you are raising…

    …doesn’t justify the forced taxation of citizens to finance questionably beneficial science and humanities projects. Many citizens don’t benefit whatsoever from a lot of these projects.

    That’s true for everything, as no human project can be claimed to be beneficial for all, or even most. If taxes are paying for goods or services for the community, someone, somewhere is paying for something they do not want or need. That includes police, emergency services (firefighters, hospitals), or the military.

    Indeed I have received more from funded arts, education, and humanities projects (from a taxpayer standpoint) than those last three common libertarian exceptions to “forced taxation”. And the latter has cost me more.

    The libertarian argument logically reduces to either no taxation ever, and so a failed state, or special pleading for taxation that protects and preserves specific class/system interests.

    If we are agreeing to live in societies rather than alone (on our own wits and strength), then we have to give up the bizarre notion that taxation is “forced”. Yes, it may be imbalanced, ill spent, and there could be room for cutting waste, but the argument it is “forced” misses the fact we grew up and live in societies which depend on our communal input, not as lone wolves in the far wilderness.

    And at least from my perspective I am more interested in a society that promotes growth in all fields of life, rather than a police state (I was going to say “bare bones police state” but they are just as packed with largess once it is agreed that is a priority for spending).

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  19. Alex,

    “One problem with this kind of discussion is that ‘impact’, ‘applied’ or ‘practical benefit’ is usually implicitly understood in an extremely narrow sense: Can we get a new invention out of it, preferably a medicine or a technical gadget?”

    Agreed, and I hope it’s clear I don’t favor that approach at all. Still, even that one is pretty difficult to quantify, and if we broaden “impact” further things become really fuzzy. Which is why I think both the scientific community and society at large need to reframe this discussion.

    ej,

    “Unnecessary remarks by Jake Zielsdorf and francisrlb dismissive of the humanities, soured this thread for me”

    Sorry to hear that. We actually discussed whether to let those comments through, and decided that I could take them on in my response, which I did.

    “I’ll rethink this with a cooler head. But be aware that there are millions with much these same attitudes who won’t rethink them later.”

    Indeed, though I still wish you to beat the odds given by current medicine.

    “So does science acquire knowledge? or merely produce commodities? The language oft used to defend science suggests the latter, no matter how else we protest”

    Right. I’m arguing for a change in language. (Yeah, I know, I will not be around to see it happen, very likely…)

    Jake,

    “still doesn’t justify the forced taxation of citizens to finance questionably beneficial science and humanities projects. Many citizens don’t benefit whatsoever from a lot of these projects.”

    Right. This is the standard libertarian argument, and it’s deeply flawed. We don’t pay taxes only for things that directly benefit us. Some of my taxes go to support national parks I am unlikely to visit, build and maintain roads I will never travel on, pay for health insurance for people who aren’t my family and friends. The list goes on and on and on…

    “It’s just that they want to further their careers and study what makes them curious without care for what will benefit the general public”

    That is your opinion. As one of those professors I can guarantee you that I do care. You are setting up a false dichotomy: it is perfectly feasible for me to have curiosity about my own technical field *and* care about the general public.

    holmes,

    “though (in a sort of kicking the tires of your argument approach) might ask if there is a large difference between the “poetic” argument of Degrasse Tyson, and the idea that powerful, functioning societies ought to fund such things because they “continue the human quest for XYZ”?”

    Right, there are similarities. I just think that the human quest for knowledge is a true universal, while we will get the next generation of scientists regardless of whether we try to go to Mars or not.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Thanks for a nice try to clarify in the scientific dichotomy represented by commercial research vis-a-vis the basic research. The free market policy and is superior in many areas, but not all. Far for it. The equation of basic research output and the discussion of public benefit is impossible if not allowing a long-term assessment period of, let’s say, 50 years or so.
    I have long marveled at the lack of empiricism of those scientists who want to lead in evidence their own advantage over others without even considering applying the very same scientific methodology of inference they use in their own research.

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  21. Hi ejwinner,

    You’re right that we’re not going to see an “investment return” from basic science on a ten-year timescale. I do, though, argue that on multi-decade timescales basic science gives an ample return.

    This is very hard to quantify since the knowledge feeds into a generalised “cloud” of knowledge which industry and society then draw on. All of the natural sciences are inter-linked, so all basic science feeds into this, and it can be very difficult to predict ahead of time which bits of research will end up with applications a few decades later.

    Thus I tend to disagree with Massimo’s remark that “a large fraction of basic research has had no practical impact whatsoever”. I’d claim that scientific understanding is such a synthesis of inter-meshing ideas from different areas that a broad understanding is necessary to underpin everything. It’d be much harder to develop technology if we only had niche understanding of localised topics.

    In saying that I’m not trying to downplay labnut’s point about the role of industry, especially in near-market research, but I would claim that all of that draws on the “cloud” of basic science.

    Maybe we have as much theory as our engineers need.

    Maybe one could have said the same in the decade before electricity was discovered; or before quantum mechanics was developed (and hence no computers).

    I would be confident of the claim that if the world did not do basic scientific research then a few decades down the line it’d be a lot poorer than if it did; the problem is the lack of control experiments to prove it.

    Hi Philip,

    Here in the UK we’re always involved with the question of justifying science to government. In the “REF” evaluations of research quality 20% of the scoring is on “impact” beyond academia.

    If we’re justifying, say, landing a probe on a comet, one argument that does work well with government is that of enthusing kids to study maths and science, such that they then have the skills industry wants.

    Similarly, modern cosmology is pretty esoteric, but aside from the public-interest angle, someone obtaining a PhD in cosmology will have a range of abilities combining physical concepts, mathematical methods, computing techniques, and linking those to state-of-the-art hardware and technology, and above all combining all those together to the high standards of cutting-edge research. Academia produces many more PhDs than needed for the science, and flow of such people into the wider economy is one reason for funding science.

    Hi Neil,

    Universities should encourage researchers who are driven by curiosity and are willing to do without external grants so that they can take the research in the direction that their curiosity demands.

    Who, then, would fund those salaries and that research? Are students expected to subsidise it through tuition fees?

    Being provocative, I’d argue that in the US and UK lots of first-rate research and scholarship is funded by government grants, and lots of third-rate research and scholarship is funded by students paying tuition. I’m not sure that’s fair.

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  22. “But are you going to argue that it is not the case that a large fraction of basic research has had no practical impact whatsoever, that for much of that research there was no reason to think it would, and that the scientists involved didn’t do it for any practical benefit to humanity whatsoever?”

    That’s three distinct statements. I agree with two of them but not the third.

    1) “A large fraction of basic research has had no practical impact whatsoever.” I agree. Some of it eventually will; other parts never will. But it’s impossible to predict which parts will and which parts won’t.

    2) “The scientists involved didn’t do it for any practical benefit to humanity whatsoever.” I agree. When I study the activity of rat brain cells, I’m not thinking about practical benefit to humanity (even though there is a high probability that the work will ultimately be beneficial, because it is establishing a theoretical base for developing brain-computer interfaces and curing brain malfunctions).

    3) “For much of that research there was no reason to think it would [have practical impact].” I disagree. Research won’t be supported unless there is a good argument that it will have a theoretical impact, and a theoretical impact often leads eventually to a practical impact. This is really the essential point.

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  23. Coel,

    Going back to my data link above (I’m big on data), the GDP% R&D spending for UK vs. US for 2010, 2011, 2012:

    United Kingdom 1.77, 1.78, 1.72
    United States 2.74, 2.76, 2.79

    So UK is doing pretty lousy (from a scientific researcher’s perspective) relative to the US. (But compare the US to Finland.) There are going to be more researchers left out in the cold as funding gets squeezed. What is the optimal GDP% on R&D to spend? I would say at least 4%.

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  24. The measure of science: We are infinite creatures who vainly attempt to measure an infinite universe which is equally as immeasurable as ourselves. The universe is ourselves, infinitely One or the same. Measure divides, truth unites! And if anyone doubt this, as we have all been taught to measure everything, (“Man is the measure of all things” Protagoras) then I would suggest a simple scientific experiment: What is the science or measure of you?

    As for politically financing this scientific experiment, money is not the answer.

    “Money can’t buy you love.” The Beatles

    =

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  25. “Truly, science advocates have two choices (which, however, are not mutually exclusive): either provide convincing, evidence-based links demonstrating a strong causal connection between basic and applied research (not just cherry picked examples), or stop pretending that most scientists do what they do in the national interest or because some major practical benefit will come out of it, because they don’t.”

    I assume ‘science advocates’ includes practicing scientists. So in the absence of ‘convincing, evidence-based links, etc” scientists should carefully refine the current boiler-plate ‘broader impact’ language. No matter how abstruse the question, scientists ought to exert themselves to explain how the answer might somehow, someday improve people’s lives (no matter how little the scientist may care). I think that’s reasonable, in exchange for appropriated public money.

    In short you are acting as an ethicist, advising scientists to cease “pretending” in their signed transactions with powers. An interesting move . . .

    The space between basic science and applied technology remains quite nebulous, but I think Latour’s actor-network theory (almost an ontology, really) is staking some signposts, whereby ethical responsibility, hitherto shunted away from the former, can be reapportioned.

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  26. What we need is a public conversation – and really a public philosophy – that promotes learning just as such as an inherently good thing. Promoting science as a source of pleasure or greater health or greater wealth or greater power over others, merely re-enforces the notion that knowledge can be know end in itself but a means to greater control – over nature, over others, over reality itself. The political dangers involved in such a notion should be obvious: a culture of all against all, with winners forming a governing elite with powers of coercion previously only dreamt.

    Indeed we’re close to that now. For much of the 20th century, America had a public philosophy – it was called Pragmatism. It had a ‘left’ (like Dewey) and a ‘right’ (like O. W. Holmes), and was more or less espoused by artists, aestheticians, scientists (even ‘scientismists’), businessmen and politicians. Pragmatism did tend to emphasize the need to further our interests and promote useful values – but these values included education and knowledge across a broad spectrum of possible interests, including of necessity public interests, shared social interests that superseded pure self-interest, because humans are social animals, and human self-interests are as nothing without a society in which this can be pursued (and shared with others.

    The 1980s did bring forth a cultural revolution, the Reagan Revolution, which is properly so-called (although Reagan himself was mentally unbalanced and incompetent at anything other than delivering speeches). What this revolution did was focus, enforce, and then disseminate ideological traces leading back to a business ‘philosophy’ (shared beliefs of a certain commercial class) existing prior to Pragmatism (it was born of the triumph of Northern industrialism during the Civil War), which Pragmatism attempted to account for and accommodated, but which had been held in check in the efforts to recover from the Great Depression.

    So let us call this business philosophy Reaganism, and recognize that it extends well beyond the restructuring of America’s economy. Reaganism involves, at the level of public discourse, the re-interpretation of all values into the language of the marketplace: ‘cost-benefit analysis’ becomes the gold standard by which we determine the utility of our interests and our policies.
    Massimo is absolutely right that this language cannot sustain a broad defense of the sciences – or of any research interest that is not amenable to such cost-benefit analysis. When Pragmatism was the public philosophy, we had a language by which to argue that discovery was a good in itself, that knowledge could be of myriad uses without need to specify any of these as reason to fund (or defund) any research.

    We can’t go back (and I am certainly not talking about any kind of golden age, anyway). But we do need to find some way to argue the funding of research in non-commercial terms – or the discourse will grow narrower over time, until nothing is funded that hasn’t been reviewed by an accountant for its potential profitability.

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  27. Jake I’m also sure you’re wrong on museum attendance.

    In December, I was at the Kimball Art Museum’s “Faces of Impressionism” exhibit. It was the second weekend, not the opening weekend, and I still felt like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, that’s how packed it was. (And, a very good exhibit, too.)

    Massimo The whole “assessment” idea is driven by the same libertarian crowd, both in academia and in government, to try to kill research they don’t like. Strange, though, how things like the health costs of pollution, or the psychological benefits of clean natural spaces, are never assessed, isn’t it? And, yes, Jake, such benefits exist. Read the likes of Louw on children’s need to be out of doors.

    Otherwise, the idea that not everything is quantifiable, let alone quantifiable in terms of cold hard cash, is part of life. But, since you may have sold your soul to Wall Street and a funhouse mirrors version of Adam Smith, you probably don’t get that. Judging by your Google+, you’re also a Gnu Atheist, which explains yet more.

    FrancisRib Nobody said the humanities was about finding breakthroughs in technology. If Jake has sold his soul for a funhouse version of hypercapitalism, have you sold your for a funhouse version of semiconductors?

    (EJ hope my head wasn’t too cool. Good thoughts from you.)

    MichaelAhles “We are infinite creatures.” Got it. So, I don’t need either Elon Musk or NASA to send humans to Mars. If I’m an infinite creature, I can step into astral projection, and hey presto, I’m there!

    More seriously, should your, or other persons’, “infinite creatures” include psi phenomena, to tie back to the theme of the piece, they’ve repeatedly been given scientific study, and refuted every time And, given that both the CIA and Russkies actually sank Cold War money into study of psi phenomena, it’s been scientifically disproven in other ways, speaking of government funding for science research. Unfortunately, folks like PEAR, though not PEAR itself, are probably still trying for government funds.

    Per the rest of your comment, it’s about aesthetics, not science, or tastes, for individual humans to measure themselves, and per the old Latin: “De gustibus non disputandum.”

    Astrodreamer, good thoughts. From your notes on ethics and related, it’s a short additional step to say that this is an issue about better science communication, too. Of course, that goes beyond science funding, but in an era where the GOP makes “government funding” sounds like Ye Olde Berlin, it’s part of it.

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  28. Hi Massimo, well I’m a bit sceptical on human universals, but I agree that the quest for knowledge would come pretty close (if broadly defined). And you are right that we don’t need space programs for inspiration, since the drive is largely in us anyway and we can get inspiration from many different discoveries or forms of exploration.

    That said, we can lose sight of certain goals that are attainable, or lose interest. We can become distracted, and dispirited. In a way the space program (even if originally part of a military/power competition) gets us thinking beyond our planet and offers a different perspective of ourselves that few other science programs can offer (intrinsically). Note I said few others, and not any others.

    And if it’s manned missions that forces us into understanding management of resources that few human endeavours, outside of submarines, require (intrinsically).

    What this means is I’m a bit sympathetic with the idea that space research is one of the more crucial lines of research to maintain in an ongoing way.

    Of course I might be biased, having done a master’s research thesis in astrobiology 🙂

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  29. Maybe one could distinguish two kinds of fundamental science.

    1. Setting up a space program to develop a Teflon nonstick frying pan. Or building a particle accelerators to initiate the world wide web. That is doing something random for pure curiosity and sell it with results that could have been produced more efficiently with targeted research.

    2. Working on a practical problem, but investing much more effort in understanding it than reasonable for solving the practical problem, if you would think in commercial terms. The more beautiful solution that may result from the better understanding is on the long term a common good, but spending so much is likely not justified if you look at the direct short-term returns for a specific company doing such research.

    I would personally expect, without much evidence, echoing the above article, that the second type of fundamental research is much more productive in advancing science. A concrete problem brings out the best in a person.

    I would also expect that this would be similar in the humanities and arts. A concrete problem is inspiring, constraints stimulate creativity.

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  30. If interest rates were high or even at more historically-normal levels (and who is to say they won’t be returning there?), I suspect that one of Massimo’s main assumptions here — that his adopted country is a sustainably wealthy one — may be tested. We are seeing huge (and unprecedented) levels of indebtedness (including government indebtedness) in America and elsewhere.

    I am not making predictions, just suggesting that there is a real possibility of significant funding problems ahead (and not just in respect of those unfunded entitlement programs).

    It’s not good enough just to point to the waste in military spending and so on. There will, I suspect, have to be big cuts here as elsewhere, and the US will probably have to cede ground to rising military and financial powers like China.

    I don’t want to get drawn into an economic/ideological debate (Austrians versus Keynesians or whatever) — just trying to see things in some kind of historical perspective and saying that a prosperous future is not assured. If times do get harder then government funding for programs designed solely to further ‘the human quest for knowledge’ will not be forthcoming.

    Fortunately however the infrastructure of established knowledge is not at risk and (reassuringly) intellectual curiosity is and will remain a robust component of human nature which doesn’t need to be subsidized to survive and thrive.

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  31. Massimo:

    “I could respond by pointing out that writing about ethics, political theory, or science policy, are all very much valuable contributions to society.”

    I greatly appreciate your decision to be a “public intellectual.” I think you may be doing more for the nation now than before. Of course, your previous work only strengthens your current work. It’s so critical that academics don’t leave the popularization of science, the dissemination of philosophical ideas to the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Sam Harris.

    So thanks.

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  32. Socrqatic Gadfly writes:

    —-Astrodreamer, good thoughts. From your notes on ethics and related, it’s a short additional step to say that this is an issue about better science communication, too. . .

    Thanks, Socratic G. “Better science communication” to be sure, but that is always being urged. I’m talking more specifically about urging transparency, in scientists’ written agreements, exposing the hidden, the fine print, in contracts and applications signed by scientists, with funders and employers, which require ethical vetting in the manner Massimo suggests. Scientists claim a unique, privileged relation to truth, yet swear no Hippocratic oath . . .

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  33. Looking through these comments I see a good bit of “We must spend more/less on general science!” but I don’t see much basic method from which to actually approach this question itself. Therefore I’ve written a comment that’s too far removed from the topic to be published here, apparently because I suggest such method rather than take a side. The gist of my method is i). we must consider the issue objectively, ii). we must identify a subject, and iii). we must identify what it is about the human that causes existence to be good/bad. Please do have a look:

    https://physicalethics.wordpress.com/2015/06/21/446/

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  34. Hi Massimo, a funny thought occurred to me that it is possible science fiction stories, including movies and series like Star Trek may have inspired more people to enter the sciences (or think about it) than the space program. Tyson himself is an admitted ST fan. I know it heavily influenced me. It seems it might have interested you? 🙂

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  35. Reading Steven Weinberg’s new book “To Explain the World”, I saw the following (bottom p.34). It’s not specifically on research funding, but is relevant to that and many comments here. And Weinberg’s views seem to me to have been somewhat unfairly characterized a few times here, though maybe not on this exact topic.

    “As a physicist whose research is on subjects like elementary particles and cosmology that have no immediate practical application, I am certainly not going to say anything against knowledge for its own sake, but doing scientific research to fill human needs has a wonderful way of forcing the scientist to stop versifying and to confront reality.”

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  36. dbholmes: no doubt science fiction did inspire future scientists but bear in mind that it arose and flourished in cultures which were already heavily science-and-technology oriented and favourably disposed towards science — e.g. Jules Verne, or the early-to-mid-20th century English-language authors.

    And one mustn’t overlook what you might call the proto-philosophical or ‘spiritual’ side of sci-fi, and particularly its moral and ideological content. There was more than a little moralizing in Star Trek, for example (and in a lot of those old 1950s sci-fi movies).

    And wasn’t there some talk here recently about Lem’s very spiritual Solaris?

    (I like the Weinberg remark about scientific “versifying”, by the way. (See phoffman’s comment.) A bit hard, but it rings true!)

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  37. I think there are some empirical problems here.
    What you write suggests that you think there are, in fact, big areas of science with no relation to advancing human utility. I just don’t think that’s true. To take an example: oceanography is a tiny science. We know very little about the oceans, even though they’re right next to us. Why? Well, it just doesn’t seem very useful. Astronomy, on the other hand, though it deals with things much further away, is useful because it regularly gives us insights into fundamental laws of nature. What else… there aren’t many animal psychologists in the world, though animals are all around us. Not much time is spent on investigating the dynamics of methane storms – it won’t be needed until we get to Jupiter.
    By contrast, the science work that is carried out is generally very practical. Fundamental physics – the last big theory yielded the transistor. Who knows what we’ll get next time we can capture and use a quantum effect? Biology – I don’t see why the participation of a private firm in a genomics project undermines the argument for public investment. The benefits are real. And in medicine the gap is very stark: private companies spend most of their time and money investigating slimming drugs. It’s public-funded research that often makes the difference on vaccines, cancer, HIV/AIDS, etc.
    So, while I take the point that we don’t have very good indicators for social impact, and it’s hard to construct a properly-evidenced argument that science is worth every penny that’s spent on it, we have an absence-of-evidence is not evidence-of-absence problem.

    And as you note, there are already structural features in the science world to tie grants to output. Even if you know how to game the “impact” section of a grant application, it still exists. And the discussion of your own motivation is irrelevant. Think of an accountant in a drug company: she’s an accountant because she likes doing accountancy. Her job has nothing directly to do with the wider goal of selling medicines. But she is useful because she plays her own role; and she is motivated by enjoyment of that role.

    I actually agree that pursuing knowledge for its own sake is a good thing. But I think “science” can and does justify itself without resorting to that argument.

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