Tuesday, April 8, 2008

So what's the use of basic science?

We can divide basic science into two areas: "Pure Science", that's the basic science we do. And "Butterfly Collecting" that's the basic science somebody else does. For some people, all basic science is butterfly collecting. I call this the taxi driver argument: when my taxi driver finds out where I'm goin and why, he inevitably asks "what's it all good for?" and more importantly "who gets rich form that?" by which he meas the same thing. And he has a point, there is no obvious societal imperative at all to fund basic science. But still we do. Why? Why should egghead professors get to live at public expense, while the rest of us have to work for a living?

Society must fund basic science because:

1) Revolutionary new technologies (e.g. penicillin, electricity, transistors) historically have always come from basic science and *then* been turned into products.

2) Basic science helps us understand our place in the universe. Perhaps not our moral place, but at least our location in the universe and the natural laws that govern it.

3) Understanding of the results basic science is necessary in order to educate students in applied disciplines.

4) Active researchers are better teachers.

5) Nobody else will.

Notice that most of my points trace back to point 1. Applied science brings evolution in technology, basic science brings revolution. Presuming of course that that is good for society, society has a clear imperative to fund basic science, because private industry is too short-sighted (and not sufficiently altruistic) to do it.

A good public policy will find efficient ways to provide a good climate for basic scientific research. Note that ordinary sounding metrics of providing basic science, say dollar ROI have no application to basic science. How do we accomplish this feat without simply leaving big bushels of money around where basic scientists are feeding (my preferred solution)? I'll go into that next time.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Support our troops!

If we're bailing people out, how about buying the loan of every single GI that's served in Iraq, and offering bank loans to the rest at, say the prime interest rate, 30-year, fixed? If the right is so supportive of our troops and the Christian right is so supportive of the working poor, why aren't those things reality now?

Just asking...

What is science?

The month of April will be science month for me. At least until the Pennsylvania primary, I will blog mostly about science and technology issues in this space. So to get started today, I want to define science. I promise more interesting posts to come.

Science is a surprisingly imprecise term. Everybody wants to be a science, so just being based on the scientific method is not even a necessary criterion for a discipline to be classified as a science ("food science", "political science", even "rocket science" -- none of them based on the scientific method.).

The wikipedia link divides the sciences into formal, natural and social sciences, based on their object of study. For this article I will instead emphasize the differences between basic science, applied science and technology.

Basic science is a search for fundamental roots and causes, usually of natural objects and phenomena. Curiosity about the world around us is its primary motivation. An easy rule of thumb is, if you can make money from it, it's not basic science. That means that my triage of the sciences is an economic one. Applied science is using knowledge to create new products or processes, and technology is the result, gadgets we can use in every day life.

Mostly when politicians talk about Science and Technology or Research and Development, they mean the latter two, as basic science is such a tiny part of the our overall expenditures (and nobody understands it anyway). But basic science is the one that's most important to society for reasons I'll describe in my next post.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

This about both candidates:

Jonathan Alter sums it up best here: "Politicians by nature construct personal narratives about themselves that make them seem shinier, if not larger than life."

Fact check them, needle them, then get over it. This gotcha stuff is childish.