20 February 2014

The Science Advocate's Dilemma

I am in Bonn, at a fascinating (if you are a science policy wonk) workshop titled, "Basic and Applied Research: Historical Semantics of a Key Distinction in 20th Century Science Policy" and organized by David Kaldewey, University of Bonn, and Désirée Schauz, Munich Centre for the History of Science and Technology. The workshop so far has been excellent.

I'm speaking tomorrow and I will mention John Kay's column in the FT from earlier this week, in which he wrote about what has been called basic, fundamental or pure research:
In 1969 Robert Wilson, director of the National Accelerator Laboratory, was testifying before the US Congress. He sought funding for a particle accelerator (forerunner of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern where the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012). Asked by Senator John Pastore how his project would help defeat the Russians, he responded: “It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another . . . are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets . . . new knowledge has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”
So why don't scientists spend more time defending science as comparable to painting, sculpting or poetry?

The graph at the top of this post provides an answer. On the left is the FY2013 budget for the US National Endowment for the Humanities -- the agency which supports painting, sculpture and poetry. On the right is the federal budget for R&D, which is justified in terms of its utility. The graph says it all.

In the coming weeks I'll have a new piece out on the comprehensive consensus in science policy over the notion that science should be useful, so much so that US Tea Party members are reciting the views of early 20th century communists. Stay tuned for that.


  1. Why don't scientists spend more time defending science? Perhaps it is because science has become a cudgel that politicians now use to beat down those who oppose their social and economic policies. It is not enough for the research to yield something useful, it has to be useful within certain politically correct boundaries.

  2. Hi Roger, are you enjoying the local warming in Germany? ;-)

  3. An unexamined question is whether a scientist, qua scientist, should lobby for more funding for science ('defending science' is a bit of a euphemism here). One could argue that scientific funding should justify itself with results that are tangible to the voting public, such that they'll clamor for it. That, sadly, isn't so much the case. On the other hand, when scientists lobby for funding, they look like any other self-interested lobby, which is somewhat self-defeating. Science is an enterprise which is more than usually dependent on a reputation for integrity and disinterestedness. Because we are so often wrong, it's important our errors be seen as honest mistakes, and part of the process; not as falsifications, corrosive of the process.

    Arlen Specter was a major booster of NIH because he attributed the remission of his cancer to research that had been done at the attributes.

  4. Sorry, that should have ended 'at the institutes'.

  5. I don't know, the graph looks about right to me. The Superconducting Super Collider cost over $12 Billion by the time it was cancelled in 1993. How many grad student can you billet in garrets in the 'rive gauche' studying medieval French verse forms for the same amount???

    A interesting set of comparisons might be for each category how many different researchers, projects or investigations were supported by those budgets; what was the cost per researcher, project, or investigation; then look to see if anything socially useful came from all of the money spent - other than a big hole in Texas.

    Basic science, applied science, the Arts and Humanities all of these things when they become subject to state funding all become subject to the dangers of: preference, exclusion, or corruption due to political processes. If you as an artist, person of letters, or scientist are looking for societal sponsorship for your work you might expect to be required to produce something of some social use for that society.

    Does anyone seriously want to return to the days of the salon system? State patronage of, and approval of everything? you get lots of Cabanal's and Winterhalter's, but not so many Manet's or Pissaro's.

    According to the concept of Social Threefolding the three societal realms of Politics, Economy, and Culture are supposed to remain separate enough that they can function as checks and balances against each other. When Culture becomes beholden to Politics for financial support, Culture loses its integrity and ability to freely comment on the political. We were all supposed to have learned this in the 19th century.

    You know we have a problem when Science starts be be seen primarily as a function of Politics and not Culture where it properly belongs.

    I believe there is an important and proper role for government in both the Humanities and the Sciences especially in the realm of the education of young artists, scholars, and scientists, but when you get into the realm of the work a day careers of mature professionals then you cross into a realm where research can no longer be "pure" and you live with the consequences.

    As my buddy ϕ says, "Politics is the death of Art."