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.

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