Monday, June 8, 2015

Shooting yourself in the foot, science policy style

Last week, the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy posted a note on the value of basic research (read it here). Of course, the letter is from people who do value basic research, people who understand that it is important and deserves to be funded. The thing they miss - the enormous, glaring, incomprehensible point they miss - is that the argument is all wrong.
I appreciate that people like to know science is doing something for them, making their lives better. But why has that become the single indication for whether science is worthy to be funded? Basic research, by definition, seeks only to know something which isn't yet known. It is knowledge for its own sake. Yes, sometimes (and the OSTP letter gives many excellent examples) the knowledge we gain can be applied to something to make our lives better. Knowing the mating habits of the screwworm allowed us to eradicate it from our cattle ranches, saving billions of dollars. But this shouldn't be the reason that we give for having funded the research in the first place.
We scientists get upset when someone comes up with a new criteria for funding, saying that we have to prove that the science we're doing will come to some eventual use. But we're the ones who have allowed this sort of criteria to evolve. We apply it to the past - we take examples of basic research and show how they eventually came to some public fruition - but we complain when that same logic is applied to the future. Why can't we just fund basic research, no strings attached (if you will), the end result being only knowledge? Not "let's fund basic science because maybe sometime in the future it will be useful to you," but "let's fund basic science because it is important that we know."
Knowledge, and its pursuit, have intrinsic value. We are not humans because we can make tools. We are humans because we care enough to understand them.