What's the Point?

This week at work, we're interviewing candidates for the job that I'm leaving. And one of the questions that came up was so simple and so fundamental to all that we do here that I thought I would ask it to you:

With all the problems in the world -- economic, political, social, and military -- what's the point of spending money on basic science? For example, why spend money looking for gravitational waves, the Higgs boson, or life on Mars?

Yes, these things are expensive. The total cost of LISA -- the space antenna that will look for gravitational waves -- is around 5 billion dollars; the cost of the LHC -- the particle accelerator that should find the Higgs -- is around 8 billion dollars; Mars Science Laboratory is over 2 billion dollars, and the upcoming James Webb Space telescope -- the successor to Hubble -- is close to 5 billion dollars.

What are we spending our money on anyway?

Boy, you know, somehow it's really hard for me to get mad about a whole 0.8% of the budget being spend on all science and technology combined. But some people do, and (they feel) legitimately so.

Let me take you back 100 years. 100 years ago, we thought that:

  • The Milky Way was the only galaxy in the Universe.
  • The only two forces in the Universe were gravity and electromagnetism.
  • The Solar System ended at Neptune.
  • The Universe was unchanging and infinitely old.
  • Newton's law of universal gravitation was always 100% true.

So. What I'm going to be doing over the next two weeks is -- starting at 1909 -- I'm going to come forward in time, 10 years at a time, and tell you the story of (for me) what the most miraculous discovery or achievement -- scientifically -- of the time was.

Why? Because to me, scientific knowledge, discovery, and understanding is the absolute pinnacle of human achievement. It is the greatest thing humanity has ever accomplished, and it is the one thing that will never be wiped away as time goes on. We may outgrow our cars, airplanes, and even our planet the way we outgrew the telegraph, the chariot, and the city-state. But the laws of nature, the fundamental how it works of it all, is the highest form of art. And I can think of no better way to show it than to highlight the greatest achievements and discoveries that we made by investing in this. We did this, we learned this, and we owe it to ourselves to celebrate it for the great achievement that it is.

And that's the point. Is that not worth my 0.8%?

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I comment I copied from another website a while back (from a cartoonist, nonetheless):

"What do you think the big headlines were in 1666, the year Newton posited gravitation as a universal force, discovered that white light was composed of the colors of the spectrum, and invented differential calculus, or in 1905, the âannus mirabilisâ when Einstein confirmed quantum theory by analyzing the photoelectric effect, introduced special relativity, and proposed the formulation that matter and energy are equivalent? The Great Fire of London and the Anglo-Dutch War; The Russian Revolution and the Russo-Japanese War. The posturing and squabbling of politicians and the exchange of gunfire over issues that would be of little interest or significance to anyone alive now. In other words, ephemeral bullshit. These insights and discoveries are the real history of our species, the slow painstaking climb from ignorance to understanding."
- Tim Kreider

Maybe if its worth your time, it would be great to see the progress in the past 100 years in say for instance social security or defense, the two major chunks of the pie as compared to S&T.

Hahahaha vaibhav, you made my day with that.

By Katherine (not verified) on 10 Jun 2009 #permalink

Ok. This is a series I will most defiantly bring my completely non-scientific brain back to visit.
Great idea!

Yey. I hate it when people undermine basic science and they ask "What is it good for?". The answer, of course, is "For knowing".

100 years ago we thought there could be a comprehensible local account of the fundamental building blocks of the world. Quantum mechanics ruled that out in a rather shocking way.

By Physicalist (not verified) on 10 Jun 2009 #permalink

Yeah, take *that* education! Military and Welfare spending rul3z!

I can think of only two reasons to support basic research: (1) someone might discover something new and (2) you never know what they'll find.

Most things might not have a practical application for decades and some things might never have a practical application, but unless you invest in the science you'll be stuck with current technology. Good enough? Even in caveman times I'm sure most people said "we don't need no stinkin' change; there ain't nuthin wrong with what we do now." If we listened to 'most' people through the ages, we might still be living in caves.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 10 Jun 2009 #permalink

I just want to know things.

By Curiousity Kil… (not verified) on 10 Jun 2009 #permalink

Even this is well spend:

10 year study: $2.5B spent, no alternative med cures
Ten years ago the government set out to test herbal and other alternative health remedies to find the ones that work. After spending $2.5 billion, the disappointing answer seems to be that almost none of them do.

Echinacea for colds. Ginkgo biloba for memory. Glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis. Black cohosh for menopausal hot flashes. Saw palmetto for prostate problems. Shark cartilage for cancer. All proved no better than dummy pills in big studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The lone exception: ginger capsules may help chemotherapy nausea.
*end quote*
Source: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090610/ap_on_he_me/us_med_unproven_remedie…

This is a great project Ethan! I almost think that you could make a great book out of this. Detailing the most significant and insignificant scientific achievements in the last 100 years, what they cost, what the public thought of them at the time and what they led to.

Speaking of scientific history does anyone have any good recomendations for scientific reading material (nothing too dry).

that is a great question to ask a candidate. Why hire them if they are not convinced about what they represent?

And love your project. If you plan to get more people involved, please let us know through here.

A billion here, a billion there, eventually it adds up to real money. BTW - How much of the other budgets are devoted to technology? Whether it be infrastructure or agriculture, there must be some recognition of the research and technology involved.
I am not against increasing funding, I am against increasing spending under the current model. Mind you I will say the same thing for ALL federal government expenditures.
One question, what benefits do we gain from knowing the "solar system" doesn't end at Neptune? Exactly how do you define solar system? Things under influence of sun's gravity? Things bombarded with cosmic rays?

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 11 Jun 2009 #permalink

Well if you're against "all" government spending Onkel Bob, have the courage of your convictions and move to a nice place with no government to speak of - Somalia is a good choice along with a few others. Of course you might have some issues with bandits, electricity and all that, but hell, the government couldn't possibly do police, law, utilities or anything else right, so I'm sure you won't complain.

In any case, nice idea for a project. One thing I'd love to see in principle is an estimate of the economic output allowed by specific scientific discoveries. See the "return on investment" so to speak. Although there are alot of things that would be simply immeasurable considering how huge they are - i.e. Maxwell's equations. But maybe a few smaller discoveries might be measured.

Thank you, Ethan, for that great idea... It's been a while since high school and despite that I got scientifically literate about ten times as much since then due to debunking the unwavering stupidity of creationists, I still need a basic science recap :).

Apart from that, I do get upset when people start agonizing over the 0.8% [esspecially while they are on the internet and probably listening to their iphones, talk about cognitive dissonance], but what REALLY ticks me off is when people complain about SETI...

Nothing gets on my nerves more than a illiterate buffoon complaining how a 20 million dollar yearly budget is too much...

By RationalFuture (not verified) on 11 Jun 2009 #permalink

Onkel Bob:

What we gain from knowing where the solar system ends is that the Kuiper Belt on occasion sends city- or nation-destroying objects our way. With more knowledge of the further reaches of our solar system, we have the foresight and time to prevent this, the most likely of cosmic disasters.

Although, I suspect your point was more along the lines of what we gain form discoveries that seem to merely add to our encyclo/wiki paedias.

Unfortunately, this is a very short-sighted view. The same argument could have been made against nearly any single bit of human knowledge. You're saying that since the individual steps don't get you to the top, the stairs are useless.

Furthermore, I challenge you to name even a single thing you use in daily life that would significantly alter your routine if taken away. I'll put almost any amount that the item you name was created or resulted from such "innocuous" discoveries. Feel free to take that challenge literally.


Don't make Onkel Bob do that. For all we know he lives in a cave and catches his meals with a sharpened stick. And posts on the internet with a...

Oh, wait, never mind. Carry on.

Although, for the record, he does say he's against increasing spending not all spending. I can agree with that principle. There's plenty of fat that we can trim from the budget. Although if they were to, say, trim enough fat to cut 1% of the overall budget and instead of just taking it all out apply half of that to science and technology I'd be the last one to complain...


But... I like kabobs. Don't knock a sharpened stick!

I, too, am against overspending. In fact, I don't know a rational person that isn't. The problem that I see is that for ~0.8%, we get airplanes, cell phones, the Internet, medicine, bigger televisions, better food, more life-like ladybots, etc.

While I don't pretend that discovery and usefulness is a linear relationship with funding, surely even a simple doubling wouldn't be amiss? It's not inconceivable to think that an additional 0.8% could come from areas that don't result in quite as many life improvements could be found.

Cutting half to S&T, however, is inconceivable to me. Especially in a time when woo and pseudo-science is gaining ground. We need better results both against their claims, and in favor of actual science (wherever it may lead).


Um, I hope I didn't overly convolute my final paragraph in my last comment. I'm against cuts and all for realistic increases in science and technology spending.

One of the interesting issues, though, and this is marginally off-topic, is that lots of people say things like, "Let's just cut defense spending. That will solve our problems." Although I agree that spending as much on defense as the rest of the planet combined is a little, um, excessive, a lot of that defense spending does go to R&D. And that military technology has a tendency to make its way down the pipe to every day applications.

Either way, I do think that saying, "We only spend .8% on science and technology!" simplifies the point a bit too much. There's probably a bit of each, or at least technology, in those agriculture, transportation, and energy slices.

However, we still absolutely need to hold the line or find ways to increase funding to pure research. Researching new technologies to figure out better ways to build roads might be within the purview of the transport budget, but pure research in to things like astronomy will be ignored if we're relentlessly practical. And that would be to the detriment of us all.

"One question, what benefits do we gain from knowing the "solar system" doesn't end at Neptune?"

150 years ago: 'What benefits do we gain from knowing Maxwell's archaic equations about something called 'electricity' that could never be of benefit in everyday life.'

Besides, in what way is 'knowing' not a benefit in itself?

Points to Geds for reading comprehension. Given that I worked on the Arpanet (ayup I really did, except I was more concerned with the cryptographic gear we attached to it and I was just a peon technician) I suspect I have a better understanding of government layouts than any of the turnips posting here. The current system does not seek the best an brightest - it flows to the connected and sexy. I am not against government funding, I am disgusted with the manner in which money is currently allocated. BTW - any of you pedants recognize that when you increase spending, that debt payment increases too?
Ethernet was a Xerox product, as was the GUI. While TCP/IP came out of an NSF grant, its roots are farther back in Bell Labs. Unfortunately the current situation is that more money is spent in the corporate world defending patents - or mounting ill-formed defenses of vague patents - than creating new technology to patent. Part of the blame lies in how the government assigns those patents, part of it in the government failure to protect its patent rights. (Or more properly the citizens' rights.)
As for averting global disaster, perhaps that what we need. The first instance of the bubonic plague halted the spread of Byzantine Empire, and opening the way for a more (at that time) enlightened Arab society. Like citrus, spinach, cotton, sugar, and a host of other agricultural products? Thank the plague of Justinian. The Byzantines weren't interested in expanding agriculture, and none of those products would have reached Europe without Islamic trade. A few less "third chimps" on the planet isn't necessarily a bad thing.
A final word: research for the sake of knowing - i.e., basic research, is the least funded endeavor in the NIH budget. The bulk of the money goes to translational research. For good or for bad, the rest of the biological and medical field doesn't agree with your assessments in the need for foundational work. Indeed, the recent stimulus bill had the ill-conceived directive that the grants go to studies which produce something in 2 years. Instead of reviewing previous grant submissions, and looking to see which unfunded proposal are worth a second look, scientists were forced (by every university administration I know) to submit new grants. Many of those grants had laughable boilerplate language how the funding that particular grant would benefit the economy. That wording is almost as absurd as some to the turnip postings above - almost.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 11 Jun 2009 #permalink

Tim Kreider, the paragraph you posted about headlines reminds me of On the Case for Mars. Robert Zubrin wrote that the most prominent thing non-historians may remember about Isabella I of Castle is that she funded Christopher Columbus. Granted, there's the sticky bits about the Inquisition and the marital discord, but nonetheless. He noted that we look back in admiration at Greece and Rome for their ingenuity, and civilizations in the future will look back on America's Apollo program with the same reverence.

It'll be fascinating to see how scientific progress compares to 20th Century world events in Ethan's upcoming articles.

By Interstellar T… (not verified) on 11 Jun 2009 #permalink

What is the point of spending money in basic science? The same question some politicians or ignoramuses of the 50's should had made when they saw those nerdy scientists playing with silicon, germanium and all that useless dirt to cook wafers that nobody could eat. Who will ever need a computer? A pencil is enough, and if you need anything else just learn to use an abacus!!
Just the same with the Hadron colider. Why spend billions accelerating tiny marbles that nobody needs? Besides pure knowledge, nobody knows if in the future that investigation will save your child's life because a new cancer treatment was discovered by serendipity, just because some crazy Hadron physicist told something to his crazy doctor.
Many great discoveries have happened by luck. Somebody was looking for something good, and then realized that got something better. But it would never had happened if he/she wasn't "wasting money in useless experiments" in the first place.

This was the gist of one of the free-response questions on the AP English Language exam this year. Well, the question was about whether space travel was worth the money and danger, and included several documents that argued both ways on the issue. One of the documents was a graph, probably the same as this one, that showed how little we spend on science. It was a fun question. :)