Adventures in Ethics and Science

Yesterday I flailed vaguely in the direction of a case we could make for funding basic research with public monies. I was trying to find an alternative to the standard argument usually advanced for funding such research (namely, that basic research frequently brings about all manner of practical applications that were completely unforeseen when the basic research was envisioned and conducted). The standard argument makes a reasonable point — we can’t usually tell ahead of time what basic knowledge will be “good for” — but it strikes me that this strategy boils down to saying “basic research is really applied research, only the applications are fun surprises down the road.”

Some of us, I think, see basic research as potentially worthwhile even in the absence of applications down the road.

But who cares what the technocrats think! If it’s the public’s money, then it’s the public’s opinions that matter here. Why on earth should they fund research whose only payoff is to deepen our knowledge and understanding of some bit of the universe?

As commenters to the earlier post point out, the public cares little for expanding the knowledge base if it doesn’t translate into direct benefits to them — in health care, gas mileage, tastier chips, tinier iPods, whatever. Scientists are free to pursue the answers to the deep foundational questions that keep them up at night, by why should we have to pay for it?

Maybe basic knowledge isn’t the same kind of societal good that a museum or a park is. (Maybe it is, and the public doesn’t want to fund museums or parks, either.)

So, it is resolved: The public shall no longer fund basic research. What now?

Will there continue to be basic research? If so, it will need to be funded by private entities (like corporations), patrons of the sciences (if we can find any), or the scientists themselves.

Scientists spend a significant amount of time working on grant applications, which would suggest that their private funds might not be … unlimited. Very few could afford to build their own superconducting supercolliders or really big telescopes.

Colleges and universities (which fetishize knowledge and knowledge-production) might see basic research as a worthwhile activity, one worth supporting as a part of the educational experience. However, they would have to support it without drawing on public monies. So, support for basic research would have to come out of tuition dollars or the endowment. Not every college or university has a big endowment to draw on, though, and tuition already gets stretched pretty thin. Schools could always raise tuition … And, the prospects for conducting basic research at state schools (supported by taxpayer dollars) would be slim. But given the public’s ‘druthers, those are the breaks.

The private sector might want to fund basic research. Maybe this would be a way to lure good scientists to your company (here’s a fraction of your work week that you can spend on the projects you want to do). But, it’s possible that in rougher parts of the economic cycle they’d cut back on this kind of thing to take care of the bottom line. Also, there’s no reason that private companies couldn’t declare the basic research done by their employees to be proprietary. So, maybe basic research would take place but would remain a good for the company paying for it, rather than a good available to the larger community.

Depending on the choices and resources of scientists, schools, and private funders (either corporate employers or rich patrons), there is a possibility that basic research would dwindle or disappear.

Will all that applied research the public funds proceed without a hiccup in the absence of basic research? Will the “all applications, all the time” focus leave those working on the applications with a sufficient knowledge base to use the public’s money well and efficiently in solving those practical problems?

Will our scientists remain competitive with those working in countries where basic research is publicly funded? Will we maintain the scientific chops we need to be able to solve our own scientific problems, and to develop the technologies we need and want?

If science becomes more focused on applications versus basic knowledge, how will this affect science education at various levels? What kind of effects will this have on things like basic scientific literacy?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think they’re worth considering. Joni Mitchell had a point when she noticed that frequently “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone”. And that’s fine — as long as you’re sure you can get it back if you change your mind.

Myself, I like to be careful about these things.

Comments

  1. #1 Mark Paris
    March 1, 2006

    There are probably lots of areas of basic research that will not bring objective social benefits within several generations. Maybe something like string theory will never bring objective benefits. Then again, maybe it will. I think the problem is going to be how to decide whether something is basic (let’s use that to mean “with no currently-perceived objective benefit”) or applied, since much of what we think of as basic research will almost certainly bring objective benefits of some sort some time. I think what I’m getting at is that defining a particular area of research as basic research (in my definition) tends towards elitism: “I care about fundamental things because my intellect is unpolluted by the practical world.” OK, that’s an exaggeration. But the distinction between basic and practical is pretty fuzzy most of the time.

    I think space exploration is different. I don’t consider it basic research, but the benefits are kind of ill-defined. I doubt that Teflon and Tang are really sufficient justification for the moon landing, but that’s always been kind of flippant. I also don’t think our space program is a very efficient technology driver. Maybe this should be considered separately from most other areas of science.

  2. #2 coturnix
    March 1, 2006

    Somebody actually did a study tracing a medical procedure (I forgot what it was – cardiac by-pass or something like that) through a long list of studies that directly led to it – each one of the dozens of cited studies being “pure” basic research with no apparent possibility of application. I believe the oldest in the chain was William Harvey’s investigation of the circulation. Every cited study was directly linked to the one preceding it (i.e., showing how the older study supplied knowledge, inspiration or technical know-how neccessary for the next, newer study).

    I think this was published in a collection of essays in a book which I read several years ago and have absolutely no idea what it was (anyone?).

    Having a well-documented case, like that one, of a series of basic science findings, spanning centuries, involving some well-known scientific heroes of the past, leading to an unexpected application of today, may sway some members of the audience, we should hope…

  3. #3 Dr. X
    March 1, 2006

    There seem to be two separate questions in play: Is it good policy to fund basic research with public monies? and How do we convince the public to fund basic research? These are both political questions, which is even more evident after a minor translation of the first: How do we ask the public whether to fund basic research? What these posts are incubating is a push-poll strategy, asking “whether” after trying to convince. A cynical view of the public would say that the standard argument is appropriate for the vast majority: you gotta bring it home, and applications are the way to do that. Appealing to more abstract humanistic longings will work for a few, as will a religious argument (the material world is God manifest and working out its laws is a form of communion), but approaches like that won’t win any elections. Not until public culture evolves quite a bit more. The counterfactuals discussed in this particular post are great fodder for policy discussions but I fear would be meaningful to even less of the public than the other arguments.

  4. #4 kevin
    March 1, 2006

    good stuff and i’m not ignoring you, Dr. FR! I’m considering some angles and will post something tonight or tomorrow

  5. #5 lambda
    March 1, 2006

    There are people that thirst for knowledge. It is an infectious thirst. It spreads to their children, to their friends and colleagues. It has been spreading for millennia and spreads today. It brought us medicine, agriculture and will bring us the stars. Do you really believe you must force it upon people? An expensive telescope costs billions of dollars today, ask yourself, how much will it cost in fifty years? In one hundred or a thousand years? Are we so selfish that we need it now? You would deny me what is mine so that you may satisfy your curiosity about the universe immediately? You would sully the quest for knowledge by stealing to embark upon it?

    I believe there are many patrons of the sciences. The telescope will be built. People here seem to focus on the brutes and people whose concerns they believe are beneath them. What about the rest? What about people that believe in science, believe in knowledge?

    The private sector funds basic research. Knowledge institutions like colleges fund basic research. Proprietary knowledge in private organizations has been addressed by patents and copyrights. Designed to promote science and the arts developed in the private sector, ultimately benefiting the public.

    We are concerned that another country will take the lead in basic research? And what? Hunch over it and mutter, protecting it from the eyes of the world like they do now? Protect knowledge development for the United States so we can get wealthy? Or win the gold star? Do we need to be better than the rest of the world? Can’t we learn from others?

    I don’t think you could get rid of basic research without a comprehensive program to stomp it out. In a free society people will expend some effort in these areas. Some people a tremendous amount.

  6. #6 Polly Anna
    March 1, 2006

    Oh, my.

    Without basic research, applied research is similar to intelligent design theory or religion as a guide to better living and the future.

    Polly

    [Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart--Anne Frank]

  7. #7 Neurotopia
    March 1, 2006

    Something tells me the internet is a prime example of the uselessness of basic research.

  8. #8 Elia Diodati
    March 2, 2006

    The real issue is an economic one. Basic research is a public good: like roads, power and sanitation, people aren’t willing to pay for it, even if they benefit front it. They won’t appreciate its utility until it stops working and the repercussions set in.

  9. #9 lambda
    March 2, 2006

    Basic research does not stop working the way roads or power stops working. When the lights go out you have an immediate problem. Selling someone without sanitation the possibility of a research breakthrough in the future is dangerous. Some might even call it a confidence game. Besides, our Dr. Free-Ride wants to finesse economics right out of the discussion by suggesting basic research is valuable even in the absence of future application. Justified without the need for “fun surprises down the road”.

  10. #10 David Harmon
    March 2, 2006

    Basic research is something whose utilities are not immediately apparent, but centuries of experience have established pragmatically that yes, it really is a public good. Furthermore, the last century’s debacles (Lysenkoism, anyone?) make it clear that political interference with science is functionally equivalent to suppression.

    When “bottom-line” types argue against pure research, they are attacking a public good. The usual pretext is to fault the research for failing to yield immediate “returns on investment”. But if you look more closely at the context of those discussions, the real reason is commonly the lack of ROI (payback) for the “bottom-line^Wfeeder” types themselves, who would much rather that tax moneys be spent someplace where they can get their cut.

    Another common reason is the “political unreliability” of scientists, whose research is likely to lead them toward all sorts of “unauthorized ideas”. Just look at all those Manhattan Project guys — one day they’re busy churning out superweapons like good little patriots, then they get one look at the results, and suddenly half of them turn into (gasp) peaceniks, conspiring to keep America from wiping out the Communist Hordes slavering to overrun our borders! ;-)

    The thing is, there already is a branch of thought which concerns itself with this sort of thing — practices which are important public goods, and should be done even when there seems little obvious profit to them. The consideration of such things is called morality. To sacrifice the common good because “there’s no profit in it”, or because it threatens the “status quo”, is simply wrong, a classic example of selfish evil. (Of course, ShrubCo has turned “selfish evil” into Executive Policy… no surprise that they don’t like science!)

  11. #11 Eric
    March 6, 2006

    Furthermore, the last century’s debacles (Lysenkoism, anyone?) make it clear that political interference with science is functionally equivalent to suppression.

    Which suggests the best way to prevent political interference is to not make science beholden to politicians for funding.

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