Fundamental Research Funding

Michael Nielsen, who’s so smart it’s like he’s posting from tomorrow, offers a couple of provocative questions about the perception of a crisis in funding for basic science:

First, how much funding is enough for fundamental research? What criterion should be used to decide how much money is the right amount to spend on fundamental research?

Second, the human race spent a lot lot more on fundamental research in the second half of the twentieth century than it did in the first. It’s hard to get a good handle on exactly how much, in part because it depends on what you mean by fundamental research. At a guess, I’d say at least 1000 times as much was spent in the second half of the twentieth century. Did we learn 1000 times as much? In fact, did we learn as much, even without a multiplier?

Well, at least there’s nothing controversial there…

These are excellent questions, but they’re also uncomfortable questions. They’re not unaskable, but it’s almost unsportsmanlike to ask them directly of most scientists. They’re questions that really need to be confronted, though, and a think a good deal of the image problems that science in general has at the moment can be traced to a failure to grapple more directly with issues of funding and the justification of funding.

Taking these in reverse, I think it’s hard to quantify the amount of “learning” that went on in the 20th Century– are you talking only about fundamental discoveries (the Standard Model, the accelerating universe), or do expermental realizations of old ideas (Bose-Einstein Condensation) count? In the latter half of the 20th century, we probably worked out the quantum details of 1000 times as many physical systems as in the first half, but that sort of thing feels a little like stamp collecting– adding one new element to a mixture and then re-measuring the band structure of the resulting solid doesn’t really seem to be on the same level as, say, the Schrödinger equation, but I’m at a loss for how to quantify the difference.

If we think only about really fundamental stuff, I think it’s interesting to look at the distribution of funding, which has become much more centralized out of necessity. It’d be hard to argue that the increase in fundamental knowledge has kept pace with the increase in funding, but to some degree, complaining about that is a little like a first-year grad student grumbling that it was much easier to get your name on an equation back in 1930. All the easy problems have been done, meaning that you have to sink a lot of resources into research these days to make even incremental progress.

Experiments have gotten more expensive, and as a result, the number of places they can be done has gotten smaller– when the LHC finally comes on line, it will pretty much be the only game in town. And that sort of necessarily limits the total amount of stuff you can hope to discover– if there’s only one facility in the world at which you can do some experiment, you’re not going to be able to make as many discoveries as you could with 1000 different facilities doing the same sorts of experiments.

This isn’t restricted to high-energy physics, either. Somebody at DAMOP this year remarked that we seem be be asymptotically approaching particle physics– the number of lasers and gadgets involved in a typical BEC experiment is increasing every year, the author lists are getting longer, and fewer groups are able to really compete.

The more important question, though, is should we really expect or demand that learning be proportional to funding? And what, exactly, do we as a society expect to get out of fundamental research?

For years, the argument has been based on technology– that fundamental research is necessary to understand how to build the technologies of the future, and put a flying car in every garage. This has worked well for a long time, and it’s still true in a lot of fields, but I think it’s starting to break down in the really big-ticket areas. You can make a decent case that, say, a major neutron diffraction facility will provide materials science information that will allow better understanding of high-temperature superconductors, and make life better for everyone. It’s a little harder to make that case for the Higgs boson, and you’re sort of left with the Tang and Velcro argument– that working on making the next generation of whopping huge accelerators will lead to spin-off technologies that benefit large numbers of people. It’s not clear to me that this is a winning argument– we’ve gotten some nice things out of CERN, the Web among them, but I don’t know that the return on investment really justifies the expense.

And this is where the image problem comes in– I think science suffers in the popular imagination in part because people see vast sums of money being spent for minimal progress on really esoteric topics, and they start to ask whether it’s really worth it. And the disinclination of most scientists to really address the question doesn’t help.

Of course, it’s not like I have a sure-fire argument. Like most scientists, I think that research is inherently worth funding– it’s practically axiomatic. Science is, at a fundamental level, what sets us apart from other animals. We don’t just accept the world around us as inscrutable and unchangeable, we poke at it until we figure out how it works, and we use that knowledge to our advantage. No matter what poets and musicians say, it’s science that makes us human, and that’s worth a few bucks to keep going. And if it takes millions or billions of dollars, well, we’re a wealthy society, and we can afford it.

We really ought to have a better argument than that, though.

As for the appropriate level of funding, I’m not sure I have a concrete number in mind. If we’ve got half a trillion to piss away on misguided military adventures, though, I think we can throw a few billion to the sciences without demanding anything particular in return.


  1. #1 goffredo
    August 15, 2007

    Hi Chad
    this is indeed a very interesting thread you started. I will follow it closely. As a physcist I feel I am terribly imprepared to argue in an up-to-date way in favor of science funding. Indeed I’ve realized that the arguments I traditionally used, and you have mentioned several, are falling on more and more deaf ears. There are instead some serious people – sociologists, historians of science, philosophers of science – that are studying this “post-big-science” period and describe real and great changes in the way science interacts with society and politians in particular. I am left feeling very “ignorant” and naive. I am curious to read what others will say on your blog. Ciao for now

  2. #2 Steinn Sigurdsson
    August 15, 2007

    I think the metric being used is incorrect, it is not “how much” – with problems of inflation adjustment and per capita normalization – it is how many peope.
    In physics, I certainly don’t think there are 1000 times as many researchers working now as there were a century ago (well, maybe within the US itself, but that is an artefact of physics research in the US just having started 1000 years ago); worldwide there are maybe 100 times as many people, but some of that is from a larger population and most of the rest is from broader demographic access, both within nations and more nations entering the game.
    The proportionate effort in physics is up, but only a modest amount. Further, the benefits come precisely from the “stamp collecting” that is done after the breakthroughs, which is why more people are needed, to follow through on the breakthroughs.

    There may well be 1000 times more bio/med researchers now than a century ago, but I think the pace of progress has also been proportionate, with many breakthroughs and ongoing followups.

  3. #3 Uncle Al
    August 15, 2007

    Reappropriate Head Start annual budget into the NSF. That solves three problems: 1) The national supply of nascent idiots dwindles, 2) physical science funding more than doubles, 3) the morbidly bloated Head Start administrative population can be given toothbrushes and told to scrub down Boulder Dam. (Safety nets to lay on the ground below.)

  4. #4 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 15, 2007

    I’ve been told that Leonardo da Vinci, as a young man, attended a Vatican-sponsored conference on the most important research problems. These included: the likes of “what organ of Jesus was pierced by the Roman spear-point?”

    Late in the conference, a debate broke out on whether rocks in shapes of shells and fish, found on mountains in Italy, were random, made by God for a good reason relating to Noah but unclear to us, or made by Satan to delude us.

    da Vinci stood up and said something along the lines of: “Has it occurred to anyone that these are the remains of actual shellfish and bony fish from a time when the ocean level was much higher, or the mountains much shorter, which have gradually turned into stone?”

    Someone grabbed him and sat him down hard, whispering: “You fool! Not only are you endangering the funding of the right people with such impertinent questions, but that you risk trial for Heresy?”

    da Vinci thereafter kept his speculations on orogeny and evolution to himself.

    I’m not sure that things have changed much in this regard.

  5. #5 Drugmonkey
    August 15, 2007

    Another question might be how much money are we wasting on college education in physics which will, for the most part, go entirely unused for the rest of the students’ lifetime.

    …just askin’

  6. #6 Jake
    August 15, 2007

    In physics, I certainly don’t think there are 1000 times as many researchers working now as there were a century ago

    But does counting physicists really get you the right number? Should the tens of thousands of technicians, machinists, and engineers required to build the LHC count as people involved in physics research, even though they aren’t researchers themselves?

  7. #7 Mike Kozlowski
    August 15, 2007

    Did you just synonoymize “fundamental research” and “physics”?

    I’m in favor of fundamental research — there absolutely should be people doing non-R&D work in biology, where there’s just tons of really important stuff to figure out, for instance, but…

    It sounds to me like physics is basically done. Sure, there’s stuff we don’t know, but there’s no clear road for figuring it out, so everyone’s just fucking around doing random experiments that illustrate unimportant things because the big issues are unknowable.

    Is there really any reason to suspect that the giant, hyper-expensive colliders are going to help us learn anything genuinely interesting, or is it just more “stamp collecting”, and we’d be better off giving the money to biologists and computer scientists who are doing the real fundamental work that’ll make the end of the 21st century so different from the beginning?

  8. #8 Doug Natelson
    August 15, 2007

    Mike, I disagree very strenuously that physics is “basically done”. To pick an example not even from my field, we don’t know the basic nature of 94% of the energy content of the universe, and it’s far from clear that the answer to this question is “unknowable”. From within my own discipline, we still don’t understand basic things about the collective responses of electrons – how does high temperature superconductivity work? It’s pretty hard to argue that solving this would be unimportant, from the technological standpoint. You do realize that the computer you’re using to read this is based on the results of physics research, some of it comparatively recent, right?

  9. #9 CCPhysicist
    August 15, 2007

    Steinn is close to the mark. I included a modified and annotated version of a figure produced by the AIP when I started writing about physics jobs. There is about a factor of 100 (from about 15 to 1500) increase in the number of physics PhDs from the early to late 20th century in the US.

    But PhD production is not “workers” in fundamental research. In the early century their university research work was funded by industry (GE, for example) and their students went to work in industry. By 1970, research had become an industry due to government’s (short lived) decision that massive investment in physics would pay off for the US just as it had during WW II.

    The view that physics is the only fundamental research is highly parochial, however. The vast majority of funding is in life sciences, where the PhD (over)production is spectacular – and a worldwide phenomenon. Those people believe that the genome is pretty fundamental science, and the people funding it agree.

  10. #10 John Novak
    August 15, 2007

    Well, as hard as it may be for the scientists to answer the question, it’s just about as hard for most everyone else to ask the question without sounding like a phillistine. (On the other hand, I have actually said to scientists of your acquaintance, “I have gotten comfortable with my inner phillistine– no, you may not have a hundred billion dollars for another supercollider.” A billion maybe. Ten, even, but anything approaching one percent of the GNP is a little much to ask, I think….)

    The really good question, though, that I rarely see scientists ask, is the one you did ask: what do we as a society expect to get out of it. It’s really easy to say, “We get knowledge,” but when the facilities are costing billions of dollars, that’s hard to justify. Not impossible, just hard.

    Another easy answer is, “Better technology,” the problems with which you rightly point out.

    The thing is not all science is physics. There is plenty of worthwhile basic research in chemistry, biology, medicine, etc, to be done which will be disproportionately beneficial. Hell, even getting rid of high energy and low temperature physics, there’s still great stuff to be done in physics itself– go make me a broadband negative index of refraction material in optic band, for instance. (No, seriously. Go do that. I’ll even take the prototype in S through Ku band.)

    Biology is getting the big research bucks, lately, because it’s obvious even to politicians (and, to be fair, has been for about five to ten years) that biotechnology is going to have as radical an effect on the economy and basic quality of life as electronics did in the past.

  11. #11 goffredo
    August 16, 2007

    A few thoughts:

    Good Science raises questions and does not only give answers. One could say, somewhat obnoxiously, that science, self-referentially, keeps inventing ways of jusifying its own existence, of finding ways of spending more money, of creating new needs. But, on the other ethical and philosophical extreme, the military do the very same. But hey! It happens across the whole cultural spectrum: all groups, cultures, do their best to propagate themselves. Economy works that way!

    The difficulty is to decide what is ethical and beneficial, and what isn’t. “Good” military spending means keeping your country competitive and capable of defending itself. “Bad” spending would mean spending money for heavy tanks when heavy tanks are tactically obsolete. If the people that decide how the money is to be spent are infuenced by tank-people then there is a conflict of interest. No tank is perfect and with unlimited funds a tank-person would wish to go on spending and spending and spending. Science, as a cultural enterprise, does the same thing and the same risks (conflicts of interest) are at work. There is “good” science and “bad” science.

    In my opinion the first thing to do is to avoid thinking that all science is automatically good. Since I find it wise to be realistic, I put that type of mistake on the same level of foolishness as thinking that all military spending is automatically bad. The second is to avoid conflicts of interest. If foul-play can happen then it will happen. Good governance should try to make the cross-sections of foul-play as small as possible (close channels for it to occur and keep eye open for spotting new channels openning up). The third is to avoid ideologies that blind or distort views of the natural world and of society. I certainly wouldn’t want a government that couldn’t neutralize the preconceptions and ideologies of the indivuduals that make it up.

    I feel that one reason there is a mounting skepticism towards science is the realization, by the people, that science is self-referential and that it runs squalid risks of all social groups. In my opinion to make distinguos we must go back to philosophy. To try to understand the universe, to discover that there is more out there then what our immediate perceptions and bad habits tell us, is more ethical than spending on weapons for defence, or of spending for consumer products.

  12. #12 Chad Orzel
    August 16, 2007

    Did you just synonoymize “fundamental research” and “physics”?

    Not intentionally.
    I talk mostly in terms of physics, because that’s what I know about, but “fundamental research” includes a lot of bio and chem and other stuff. I usually remember to include a caveat to that effect, but I was in a hurry yesterday (and today as well), so I got a little sloppy.

  13. #13 Grad
    August 16, 2007

    To try an compare the 20th century to the 21st is almost always going to have the 21st look worse. The explosion in almost every field that happened last century isn’t about to be repeated–no matter how much money we through at it. So this isn’t the argument that you want to use to or the metric your want to use when thinking about funding.

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