Scientia Salon

The debate about funding of basic scientific research


by 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.