Friday, May 8, 2015

Lamar Smith and the science funding legislation

There's been a lot of angry press lately regarding the proposed science legislation. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate that cutting funding for climate science is bad. Denying that climate change is real is bad enough. But there's a silver lining here that people are ignoring.
The legislation wants to increase funding for basic research. It even goes so far as to explicitly state that basic research should be funded by the government, instead of applied science. There is a tremendous truth in this - the private sector does not, and generally cannot, fund basic "pie in the sky" science. Things that have no obvious application; things that may never have any useful application, other than the increasing of humanity's store of knowledge. Things which, fifty years from now, will surprise us by coming out of left field to create the next amazing thing. This is precisely the kind of science the government, as the largest single source of money, should be funding. Let the private sector use the knowledge we gain from our basic research to develop applications and sell them. That's what they do.
So the climate research folks are up in arms about having funding cut, but isn't it only fair that solar cell companies continue the development of more efficient solar cells? Isn't it only fair that continued research into renewable energy be supported by those corporations and individuals and institutes for which renewable energy itself, and not basic knowledge, is the goal? On the other hand, is it fair to assume that Elon Musk and Bill Gates are going to fund research into fusion or biology?
Of course, all of our problems would be solved if only there was more funding overall - if the government could fund renewable energy research and basic fusion research, biology and climate science, mathematics and engineering. But we don't have that luxury, so we have to make tough choices. I don't often agree with the Republicans, and even now I don't agree with Smith's motivation, but I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that he wants the government to fund basic science.

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