Gene Expression

Ask a ScienceBlogger – Underfunded?

This week’s Ask a ScienceBlogger:

What’s the most underfunded scientific field that shouldn’t be underfunded?…

I’ll say old fashioned biological anthropology. There’s a reason that a pall was cast over thsi field after World War II, but we need to start pushing an analysis of man the animal on all levels again, as the post-genomic era is starting with an explosion centered on the most important animal of all, and the moment is ripe for the re-emergence of complementary fields.

Comments

  1. #1 Agnostic
    October 28, 2006

    Hear hear! Though I would for free investigate the within and between-population variance in callipygia. If funds were lacking, I suppose I could forgo purchasing the calipers and just use my bare hands instead…

  2. #2 Mouth of the Yellow River
    October 28, 2006

    Ni Hao! Kannichi Wa!

    A much more important question is which area of science is overfunded based on the politicization and socialization of science and is dragging down the whole industry at the expense of our most pressing problems on which we are dependent.

    MOTYR

  3. #3 Jake
    October 29, 2006

    I say robotic space exploration and SETI. SETI’s main job is to keep searching for the greatest scientific discovery of all human history. It should be better funded. I know that space exploration is already quite well-funded, but it is still underfunded IMO. We need many more orbiting telescopes and many more robotic missions within the solar system and perhaps beyond. It’s just not happening at the pace it should.

  4. #4 dougjnn
    October 29, 2006

    Jake–

    If anything I think space exploration is overfunded. I’d cut back on it before many other things. Particularly maned exploration is overfunded. But unmanned scientific should be a lower priority than many other things.

    Why?

    Payoff.

    Science funding purely for curiosity approaches religious motivation, that is if it seems clear that there won’t and can’t be economically viable payoff for a very long time. Throwing the dice and/or simply indulging the curiosity if fine and good regardless as long as the cost isn’t too enormous. You never really know for sure that your predications about even medium range payoffs were right and it’s good to diversify your “portfolio” of payoff bets, including some long shots, as long as the expense isn’t too extreme.

    Not that I don’t enjoy and find fascinating all sorts of scientific explanations for how things happened , from big bang and its variants cosmology to human evolution, which don’t have immediately obvious engineering applications. I do. It’s just that I think ultimately the scientific way of measuring truth about causation is intimately involved with ability to manipulate causation, and tends to lead to our ability to effect the physical/biological/energy world for our benefit. Learning about the evolution of genes that were involved in human evolution could lead to discovering enzimes or proteins that might make more people lactose tolerant, or alcholism resistant, or even enhance certain kinds of intelligence.

    What has and does make science valuable is the technology it spawns. However philistine that sounds I think it’s absolutely true if one takes a longer view of technological payoff. Longer, but not infinite and not too long either. As well, what ultimately separates science from metaphysics is that science is amenable to proof through reproducible measurement — which ultimately amounts to or virtually amounts to, reproducible ability to detect/effect physical manipulations of our environment.

    Sure it’s true that curiosity about basic causation is an enormous engine for scientific productivity. Sure it’s true that often what’s ended up being most scientifically valuable even in terms of ultimate civilian or military engineering payoff hasn’t been an immediately obvious most practical line of scientific investigation. And sure it’s generally been really valuable to get at root causes and understandings, rather than only pursue small but clearly valuable permutations on what’s already been done.

    But I still maintain that ultimately “valuable” is measured in terms of humankind’s resultant ability to manipulate the physical/natural/energy world to better feather our nests.

    I’d suggest for example that any basic physics string theory that doesn’t involve our ability to measure and therefor change and effect strings in some way is ultimately useless metaphysics and by my lights, not really science at all. Rather, it’s a kind of supernatural theorizing, regardless of how much it “explains”. Religions explain a lot as well, in their fashion.

    Further near and medium term manned space exploration looks like a poor bet to me here.

    On present evidence, it looks like for the medium term at least, what’s out there is too expensive to harvest for what’s back here. All that could of course change is there were some fundamental changes in how transport works (Startrek transporters or even warp engines anyone?) So any promising leads in that area, sure pursue. And a Hubble replacement or fix/enhancement. And rovers to Mars. But human colonies on moon and Mars? Nope. Bad payoff. Ahead of technology/economics. We could do it but the cost/benefit equations suck.

    More deep and other kinds of sea utilization initiatives make more sense.

    Biologic and particularly genomic research should get more funding, as should human origins and differences research, Razib’s biological anthropology.

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