Thursday, October 29, 2009

Silly science policies threaten progress

Suppose you were a politician in charge of shaping your country's science policy. Let's also suppose you are actually interested in promoting the welfare of the nation and humanity at large (hopefully not all politicians are driven by sociopathic greed, and after all, we are talking about you here). Let's also suppose that you are not entirely stupid. What kind of science policy would you make?

Presumably, you would not come up with the kind of ultra-shortsighted policy that the UK has now come up with in determining to weight research proposals' (short-term) 'economic and social impact' by 25% in assessing their merits.

The point with fundamental research, however, is that one just simply cannot make any reliable statement about its likely impact on society. When Dirac postulated the existence of the positron on the basis of his equation, he didn't think of positron emission tomography revolutionising cancer diagnostics. When Einstein described stimulated emission of radiation, he certainly didn't have DVDs in mind. And while Peter Grünberg might have had some applications in mind when he made his discovery of giant magnetoresistance, he probably didn't imagine the iPod (otherwise he'd be very, very rich).

The only research that will fare well under such a short-sighted policy is industrial and quasi-industrial research that has a clear product (i.e. a product that can be readily imagined with current knowledge) in mind. Such applied research is important, sure. But fundamental research is far more important for the overall progress of the human race, because it creates the foundations upon which the applied research of the future is going to rest. Moreover, applied research generates revenue for industry, and therefore it behooves industry to fund it. The government's job in science is the support of fundamental research that will not easily get industry support -- corporations are notoriously short-sighted, rarely looking beyond next year's balance sheet. The government should have more foresight.

Nobel Laureates are leading the fight against this silly policy; you can hear from Chemistry Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan at nature.com. UK-based readers can sign a petition against the silliness at ucu.org.uk.

3 comments:

Caroline said...

Its true silly science policies can seriously hamper scientific and technological advancements. Policies should be open for both fundamental and applied research. After all, how many Nobel prizes are won for Engineering research I am a college sophomore with a dual major in Physics and Mathematics @ University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. By the way, i came across these excellent physics flashcards. Its also a great initiative by the FunnelBrain team. Amazing!!!

szaboka said...

Dear Georg,

Fundamental research has two major marketing problems: 1. it is getting very expensive 2. it is getting harder and harder to imagine that everyday life
will ever be effected by it (like in the good old days).

Finding the positron needed a tabletop experiment and took not more than 1 man-year, but today we have to build the most complex machine of mankind to find the Higgs with investing 100-thousand (just a guess) more. In the first case it is not hard to imagine that practical implementations can follow soon (you mentioned EPT), but in the second?

And the LHC-Higgs research is still very down-to-earth compared to eg. string
theory. With a degree in particle physics I have not even the slightest chance
to understand what my friend (MIT, string theory) is currently doing. How can
you then convince politicians/tax-payers to expect a revolutionary outcome from string theory, if even practicioners of the field have no idea what they are talking about.

Still I am not saying, that it should not be supported. Philosophers also get
money :-) and it is far better to support this weird stuff than making
war/saving investment-banks or sg. like that. My only concern is, that we cannot refer to these classic examples of the past without any limitation to get money for our research.

szaboka

Arvind said...

I accidentally came across your blog through random surfing (yes I was procrastinating). I agree with you to spend more on fundamental research. As everyone wants a 'product roadmap' with every dollar spent, it has only became harder recently. I am by no means expert on atomic physics, but there is enough to be done and learn in complex and large scale systems. If you want, you can sell it that it will change the shape of Internet, explain social dynamics etc; but I believe the results will be far more reaching