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.


  1. Hi, Kelly

    I agree. But there is a logical fallacy in the case as you illustrate it, which is that benefits very often do not become apparent till long after the work is done and results seen. So the funders can't ask for applied uses (justifications) at an early stage and expect anything other than wild speculation.. a somewhat pointless exercise. Who knows.. maybe the search for dark matter will solve our fusion research problems?

    The point is that funders have to, perforce, address the utility of basic science, if that is their justification, not on imagined specifics for the future, but on the past track record, which is pretty good. I think that is a valid part of the public and social justification, but as you note, hardly the only one.

    1. Burk, fair point. It's ok for us to argue if funding bodies are using wild extrapolations to determine research fitness, but not if funding bodies are using past examples of success. That said, I still think we need to emphasize that the scientific pursuit has its own value.

  2. You might find it worthwhile to look up Alvin Weinberg's work on criteria for scientific choice, which was published in the 1960s but still has value today. (Weinberg and Alex Zucker had a long-running argument about the value of high-energy physics.) His book "Reflections on Big Science" (1967) is an excellent read.

    1. I'll look it up, thanks for the recommendation!


Think carefully before you post. I reserve the right to moderate any comments posted to my blog.