In Praise of Basic Research


I don’t know which political controversies will end up being the most important ones during 2013, but I am fairly certain that the funniest catch phrase of the year will be “duck penis.” The reason for this is obvious: the word “penis” makes people giggle, and pretty much everything is funnier on a duck.

Beyond the giggle factor, however, it is not clear to me why studying the reproductive system of a flourishing species would not be considered important research. Quite the reverse: since reproduction is (along with not dying) the key to evolution, I would suspect that studying various reproductive systems might tell us a whole lot about how evolution works. And yet, for the past month and a half, “duck penis” has come to represent all that is supposedly wrong with the way that the federal government funds science. (See here for a response from the study’s principal investigator.)

Last week, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, escalated the conflict between Congress and the National Science Foundation by sending a letter to the Director of the NSF demanding justification for five funded projects that he considered wasteful and by introducing a draft of a bill that would require the agency to certify that every funded project is “in the interests of the United States.”

As I understand the concerns that Representative Smith and others have, they could be paraphrased something like this: “Times are hard and money is scarce. We have a soaring national debt, and government spending is out of control. We need to be good stewards of public funds, and we can’t justify spending money things like duck penises  that don’t clearly advance the public good.” This is a legitimate objection, and it has a legitimate answer–one that goes to the heart of what kind of scientific research the government should be funding in the first place.

At the heart of the matter is the distinction between “basic science” and “applied science.” The first of these, basic science, is not aimed at creating any particular product or solving any particular problem. It is, rather, research aimed at expanding the sum total of human knowledge.  Applied science, on the other hand, is aimed at solving specific problems and creating tangible end results. Applied research produces the sorts of things that politicians can point to and say, “see what science has done for you.” It gives us pharmaceutical miracles, amazing technological breakthroughs, and diet cola without an aftertaste. The thing is, though, applied science has to have basic science to build on. Expanding the sum total of human knowledge, it turns out, is an extremely important part of inventing stuff.

Applied scientific research is extremely important, but it is not something that the government can do better than private industry. Corporations spend gazillions of dollars each year on research and development, but they focus exclusively on research that will ultimately turn into things that they can sell. Charitable foundations, though not motivated by profit, are equally concerned with results. Because applied science produces tangible results, and marketable products, it will always have plenty of backers. This is one of the things that the private sector does very, very well.

Basic research, on the other hand, is not. Only the federal government has both the resources to fund basic research on a large scale and the motivation to advance scientific knowledge without expecting an immediate or tangible return on their investment. The payoffs are often years in the future, and there is no way to be certain which projects are going to do more than simply advance the frontiers of knowledge–which is a perfectly legitimate thing for a government to be interested in doing. If we are going to have a robust program of basic research in the United States, the funding is going to have to come from the government. And it is one of those things that the government actually does pretty well.

The National Science Foundation, particularly, has had a huge impact on America. It is one of the most competitive funding sources in the world. It has helped to create a culture of basic research in the Unites States that is second to none and that has kept American industry at the forefront of applied research for generations.The NSF does not, however, restrict its funding to things that can be immediately identified, or certified, as “in the interests of the Unites States.” Such a requirement, by the very languages that it uses, privileges applied research that yields tangible products.

Applied research will never lack for sponsors because it follows the basic logic of capitalism: it provides a clear and measurable return on an investment. Basic research, on the other hand, does not. It is in everybody’s genera;l interest that basic science be done, but it not in anybody’s specific interest to finance it. It is, in other words, precisely the sort of thing that a government can do uniquely well and should stop doing only after careful consideration of the consequences.