On Basic Research

April 19th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

On 10 April 2005 Rick Weiss had a commentary in the Washington Post lamenting the apparent decline of basic research. He writes, “the U.S. scientific enterprise is riddled with evidence that Americans have lost sight of the value of non-applied, curiosity-driven research — the open-ended sort of exploration that doesn’t know exactly where it’s going but so often leads to big payoffs.”

Daniel Greenberg suggests one way to view such claims, “You hear it repeatedly: The federal government is cutting financial support for scientific research, and America is losing its scientific supremacy. That ominous message, delivered to Congress by money-seeking scientists, is routinely and uncritically parroted by a gullible press. But it’s self-serving nonsense.”

Weiss’ article is chock full of contradictions. How does one reconcile “non-applied, curiosity-driven research” with the promise of “big payoffs”? The former suggests that applications should not be the metric of success, while the latter says they should. Weiss cites DOD’s DARPA as an example of the trend away from “basic research.” But as John Giacomoni, a student of mine, points out for our class, the development internet was always driven by considerations of applications and deliverables. DARPA does not have “basic research” as part of its congressionally-mandated mission, only NSF and NASA have such a mandate. In every other federal agency research is a means to an end, not the end itself, or at least this is view from the Hill.

Weiss is similarly off base making reference to the U.S. Geological Survey, “… in geology, scientists have for years sought funds to blanket the nation with thousands of sensors to create an enormous, networked listening device that might teach us something about how the earth is shifting beneath our feet. The system got so far as to be authorized by Congress for $170 million over five years, but only $16 million has been appropriated in the first three of those years and just 62 of an anticipated 7,000 sensors have been deployed. Only in fiscal 2006, thanks to the South Asian tsunami, is the program poised to get more fully funded — out of a narrow desire to better predict the effects of such disasters here.” It seems somewhat insensitive (at best) to me to suggest that a response to a disaster that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives represents a “narrow desire.” Historically, the USGS, and other earth sciences agencies, have always been motivated by supporting the needs of decisions makers and the public in areas such as weather prediction, resource extraction, pollution regulation and ecosystem management. Science has been central to their successes.

Weiss plays fast and loose with the facts when he claims that “The National Science Foundation in particular, the nation’s premier supporter of physical sciences research and science education, has suffered repeated cuts in recent years and now demands that grantees spell out in unprecedented detail how and when their proposed work will pay off.” The NSF did in fact see a budget reduction from FY 2004 to FY 2005, but this is during an extended period of increasing funding of about 40% over 7 years (data here in PDF). And claims of demands for spelling out payoffs don’t square with experience (e.g., see this NAPA study in PDF which found that 73% of reviewers simply ignored the NSF broader impact criterion).

Weiss asks, “Why should we care about this demand for results before the research begins? Isn’t exploration for exploration’s sake a luxury?” His answer is suggestive of a Catch-22 “First, there are practical reasons to care. At least half of this nation’s economic growth during the past half century has been the direct result of scientific innovation…” So research for research sake is justified by its societal benefits? If arguments for support are made in terms of societal benefits, then it would seem appropriate for policy makers to expect such benefits from the research they fund. Weiss also suggests a second reason for supporting curiosity-driven research is intrinsic, the value of knowledge itself (an argument I happen to agree with).

In the post-World War II era the phrase “basic research” has carried two contradictory meanings — to many scientists it means “pure research” (i.e., no connection to the needs of society) while to most policy makers it means “fundamental to the economy and innovation” (i.e., a close connection to the needs of society). This strategic ambiguity served both parties well for decades, but no longer seems to work. As scientists appetite for funding has grown while government spending has become more tight, demands for public resources from competing interests has taken the form of claims of relative payoffs related to public investments. Scientists have been exceedingly skilled at playing the budget game. But as the scientific community has made claims of ever more benefits from research, it should not come as a surprise that policy makers hear such claims and expect results.

For further reading:

Pielke, Jr., R.A., and R. Byerly, Jr., 1998: Beyond Basic and Applied. Physics Today, 51(2), 42-46. (PDF)

Greenberg, Daniel S. 2001. Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion. 528 p. (University of Chicago Press).

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