THE WISDOM OF SCIENCE (page 111-115)
3.3 Why Support Basic Research?
It is often said that the real difference between ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research is simply a matter of time scale, and that most research, no matter how recondite, is eventually applied; the more ‘basic’ it is the longer it takes to prove useful. The abstruse mathematical researches of men like Georg Riemann and William Rowan Hamilton in the 19th century had to wait for the best part of a century before they were found to be useful to modern physics. Nearer or time, Lord Lutherford was fond of proclaiming, loudly, that his work on the structure of the atom in the 1920s was completely useless, and yet the first atomic reactor was operated in 1942!
This argument, that basic and applied research differ only in the time scale, obscures the essential difference between their aims. The boundaries between them are not always clear, nevertheless the distinction wich i propose to use here is useful and is based on that difference. Basic research aims at increasing our knowledge of ourselves and of the world around us and in the jargon of scientific policy – making is called ‘curiousity-oriented’. Applied research is directed towards achieving some reognized practical goal and is said to be ‘mission-oriented’.
If now we look at the many official reports and surveys of science policy to see why we should support basic research, the firs reason wich they give is that it is an investment in the future. They invite us to see it, so to speak, as the seed-corn of the future material benefits that we can confidently expect to flow from applying new knowledge. Indeed many economists  have argued that government must support basic research because the free market will always fail to support it adequately. Hence in a welfare economy, so they say, the govenrment has an obligation to fill the gap between the level of basic research which the market will support and the level which is socially desirable.
It is implicitley assumed in this argument that research is an activity which can be justified in economic terms. At first sight this argument look plausible, if not self-evident, but in fact it is not easy to prove that it is true for any one country, and that is, of course, the qestion of modt interest to the government and tax-payers of that country. It is all too easy to measure the input s of time and money into research, but unfortunately it is difficult to measure the output by the rate of growth of productivity, then the statistics for period 1950-1964 show no clear correlationbetween the growth of product per head of a country and the amount which it spent on research and development. However we should not, i suggest, attach too much weight to an analysis of such a sort period. For example, at that time Japan was importing and licensing much of its new technology. The rapid growth of its GNP did not, therefore, correlate well with its comparatively low expenditure on research and development. However in recent years this situation has changed. In the last few years the Japanese have reognized that without their own indigenous basic research their technology will eventually become out of date. For one thing they have found that countries with advanced technology are not always willing to export their lates ideas to their competitors.
Thus the relation between expendicture on basic research and material progress remains difficult to demonstrate in hard economics term. As Dan Greenberg has remarked : “The relationship between research and prosperity is as predictable as that between prayer and deliverance.” As a consequence there is no simple economic index by which a country can measure how much it should spend. Nevertheless, if we look at science as a whole and on a sufficiently long time scale, then we can see clearly the part played by basic research. What we see is not a simple linear process in which research is followed by development and production, but a complex interaction in which the driving forces flow in both direction. Broadly speaking, the social needs and the technology which is available at any given time make possible the application of some particular advance in basic science. But it is, of course, necessary to have already made that scientific advance.
The complexity of these relations are illustrated by the development of the transistor at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1947. This development owed a lot to the classic papers on the theory of semi-conductors written many years before, in 1931, by an academic physicist, A.H.Wilson, and also to the more recent advances in the purification of germanium. In turn, Wilson’s work was one of the first applications of the quantum theory, which itself can be traced back to attempts, early in the present century, to understand the spectrm radiated by a black-body. The quantm theory made use of mathematics which was developed in the 19th century, and so on back into the mists of time.
Another, more quantitative, demonstration of the relations between basic research and applied science is to be found in the study published in 1976 by Julius Comroe and Robert Dripps . In an impressive analysis of the origins of ten major advances in the diagnosis; tratment and prevention of cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, they found that over 60 percent of the 529 key scientific articles, on which the advances were based, were concerned with basic research. If the argument, that basic research is essential to the advance of our material progress, is to carry more weight with the public and with the authorities which control the money, it could well be strengthened by more studies of this kind.
A second reason for the support of basic research, commonly found in official reports, is that it contributes to national prestige. To quote a study published by the Science Council of Canada :
The prestige of a nation is to some degree predicated on her contribution of basic knowledge, altough such prestige is, to a large extent, restricted to the scientific community.
This is an argument which i distrust. In times of plently it can be used to justify a spectacular project – like sending a man to the Moon – in which the expense is not justified by the scientific result, and is therefore likely to get basic research a bad name as being a waste of tax-payer’s money. In times of economy it dissapears entirely from the scene.
A third reason for the support of basic research, also found in most official reports, is that it builds up a body of expert knowledge and a group og highly trained people who, especially in a small country, are needed to act as an interface between imported technology and local industry, and that it contributes to higher education. This is an important but limited argument; it is limited because many people will claim that there are other more economical ways, such as training programmes, of achieving the same ends.
A fourth reason is that basic research is a valuable cultural activity. This argument suffers from the use of the word ‘culture’ which, as i said before, conjures up visions of chamber music and folk dancing. As usually expressed it seriously underates the significance og science and presents it as an ornament of society and not, as i shall argue in 3.6, as an activity of central importance to our culture. Let me illustrate this point by quoting from the Report of The Royal Commision on Australian Government Administration :
‘Like the arts’, it says, ‘science is one of the graces of life, and its presence as an aspect of a particular society is seen as a mark of civilisation commanding respect from other societies. Since this activity can no longer be performed by the whealthy amateur, a civilised community will, it is argued, properly support it.’
This argument is uncomfortably reminiscent of the reasons sometimes given for supporting a useless and decadent aristrocracy!
Finally if we ask the people who actually do basic research why they do it, we shall get all the previous argument plus the fact that they enjoy doing it, and that they want to find out somethin new and get the credit for it. If they are working in a branch of science which is far removeod from practical application, like astronomy, many scientist, instead of trying to show the relevance of their work to the main body of science, fall back on the ‘Mt.Everest’ argument – one climbs Mt.Everest ‘because it is there’ – one studies that universe sample because it is there. Althoght this argument may be profoundly trueit, it is unlikely to impress the average tax payer, who is more likely to tax the view that it is much more fun to climb mountains and look through telescopes then to pay the bills. Generally speaking i have found that scientist enganged on basic research are not much good justifying their work to the layman.
Thus the conventional apologia for basic science present it as a source of future material progress and a trained people, as a prestigous ornament of society and as a source of personal satisfaction. In many experience these arguments usually fail to carry conviction; they are more likely to be regarded as special pleading by scientist to do what they want at someone else’s expense. To be more successful, especially with politicians, they need to be better articulated and to show more clearly the connection between basic research and the practical results in which most people are interested. Even so, i doubt whether they will be really successful until there is a wider understanding of the whole scientific endeavour and of the vital role which it plays in our culture (3.6).
3.4 How shall we choose what basic research to do?
There are some obvious constraints on what basic research we choose to do because science is essentially a social activity and is embeded in history. Inevitably our choice of topics will be strongly influenced by the current preoccupations of mathematics of the 17th and 18th centurieswere influenced by the navigational problems of exploring the world, and in our own time the exploration of the solar system has been promoted by the military interest in space research. Our choice will also be stronly infulenced by the scientific theoris and fashions of the day, by what Thomas Kuhn calls the ‘Paradigms of science’. A second obvious constraint is that the supply of competent people and money is limited. Nowadays research in most branches of science is so expensive that, if it is to be done at all, it needs a grant from a government, a foundations, an industry or a wealthy patron of science and so, inevitably, basic research is controlled through the supply of money.
This brings us to the first major question in choosing what basic research to do; how much should we spend? As we have already seen, there is no clear-cut economic answer; furthermore, unlike the arts, public appreciation of basic science cannot be measured by attendance at concert halls and art galleries. As far as i can see, at present the amont to be spent is based largely on ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ – in other words, on looking to see what other countries are doing. This make the funding of basic research peculiarly vulnerable to change in the cultural climate and we should aim to make it less so. One of the things we should is to develope a more convising case (preferably an economics one!), for the political support of basic research than merely keeping upwith the Joneses. We shall also have to pay more attention to the public relation of science. It is just as desirable that the public should understand more about the important of basic research to science as it is that scientist should understand more about the importance of science to society.
Given some money for basic research, how shall we choose who to give it to and for what? We cannot avoid this choice; to divide the money equally among everybody who would like to do some research is not only impractical but is a sure prescription for mediocrity. We must of course, strike a balance between what i shall call the external and the internal criteria.
-ini jatah ketiknya lenny-🙂