September 14, 2010
The British government has started an austerity drive and asked for all departments to prepare for funding cuts of 25 percent or more. This includes science. Researchers are talking about shutting down synchrotrons, cutting off U.K. participation in the Large Hadron Collider and losing an entire generation of potential scientists. Even more worrisome, however, were comments last week from the government’s business secretary, Vince Cable, who called for rationing research by excellence and said that “there is no justification for taxpayers’ money being used to support research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding.”
Who determines what is commercially useful or—even more difficult to pin down—theoretically outstanding? And any good peer review system should already be selecting only the excellent science to fund; there’s almost always more good science than there is money for it.
What Cable is really calling for is the defunding of basic research (sometimes called “blue-skies research”) that on its surface seems to have no purpose other than fulfilling curiosity. He isn’t the first fiscal conservative to question why the government should spend money on this type of research. You may remember U.S. Senator William Proxmire and his Golden Fleece Awards in the 1970s and 1980s. Proxmire would highlight examples of wasteful government spending, and one of his targets at times was the National Science Foundation (NSF), funder of a good chunk of U.S. basic research. It was easy for Proxmire to question why NSF was spending money on things like jaw clenching in primates since he made no effort to understand the greater impacts of the research (the primate study, for example, ties into how humans react in confined spaces).
If scientists aren’t creating an item that can be sold for profit or developing a cure for cancer, the thinking goes, then they must be wasting money. But science isn’t like that. You can’t create a cure for cancer if you don’t understand how cancer develops at the cellular level. And that lightbulb can’t be designed without knowledge of how the metal inside reacts with gas and electricity.
Basic research in physics led to the development of the transistor, semiconductors and computers. NSF-funded research, specifically, led to the Internet and Google. Studies of bacterial enzymes, which led to recombinant DNA, paved the way for biotechnology. It’s this kind of science that forms the backbone of discovery and economic development.
The National Science Foundation was created 60 years ago out of this recognition of the importance of basic research to a nation’s science and economic efforts. It grew out of a report by Vannevar Bush, the nation’s first science adviser, in which he wrote:
Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn. New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science….
A nation which depends upon others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade, regardless of its mechanical skill.
Science—including basic research—isn’t a waste of taxpayers’ money. It’s an investment in our future. The Brits might want to remember that before they slash science funding in the name of austerity.
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