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.