Public Good.

I was in a Twitter discussion with Karen James last week asking about just what the benefit of basic research is to the tax payer. I trotted out the boost to the economy (which is true; most industries are touched by basic research in some way). But she said that that doesn’t really benefit taxpayers directly. I take that to mean that yes, basic science boosts the economy and is a good return on investment purely for that reason, but that doesn’t include everyone. It is a public good that results from science funding, but not the only one. There are other benefits of funding basic research that make it even more worthwhile. And I’m going to highlight a few of them here. 

I’ll start with this [bold emphasis at end is mine]:

In 1969, Robert R Wilson testified in front of Congress’ Joint Committee on Atomic Energy as part of the AEC Authorizing Legislation for FY 1970 (to fund the FermiLab’s first accelerator):

“SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

Dr. Wilson. Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.

In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”

1. Science is one part of our cultural contribution to the world. It’s just as important as art, entertainment, design, etc. Science is a creative field too and informs other creative disciplines as well as opens up new possibilities and ideas to explore. And we need ideas as much as technology. And often, science (like some art) is well ahead of it’s time; an idea that’s in search of an application. It is the sign of a healthy culture that produces ideas, is open to exploration, new possibilities, and does so in a way that is not exclusive to anyone.

2. Science helps us interact with the rest of the world. And I don’t just mean joint funding for big projects like CERN or the ITER fusion reactor. Science opens diplomatic channels and helps us share ideas around the world and improve our own– every time a scientists sends an email to a colleague on the other side of the world, that’s a good thing. The NSF McMurdo Station Research Station in Antarctica makes a political statement as well as a scientific one. It provides for a scientific presence in Antarctica that we can then use to host other scientists from around the world. Science actually disdains political boundaries in a lot of ways. Scientists want to get at how nature works, how people interact with nature, and we want to find the best fit model. That means getting ideas from all over the world, mixing them together and following the evidence. it also means taking advantage of technologies developed in other countries to test your hypothesis if need be. Science doesn’t advance as well in isolation (yes, there needs to be time for scientists to think individually, but at some point, our ideas have to make it out into the world for others to see, hash over and discuss). Science is a great diplomatic tool and not just for it’s ability to develop technologies people use to communicate or the evaluative power of the scientific method to test claims of another diplomat. It is just purely for the international good will that’s fostered in joint exploration like building telescopes in Chile with funding from the United States. I don’t fully know how these deals work, but these collaborations bring us closer together, erasing borders…as the Apollo mission photos of Earth in the 1970’s showed us. Science can foster peace (yes, there’s the other side too; science fosters war/weapons, but this post is about the benefits of funding science; we have to appeal to the better angels of our nature if at all possible).

3. Identifying global problems. Science uncovers long term problems we need to solve to continue to thrive on the planet and eventually, quite possibly beyond. Science has defeated small pox and other infectious diseases (though still working on others). We’ve uncovered the mechanisms of global climate change that may well be the defining challenge of our time. It’s a complex problem and nearly every field of science has some contribution to make in solving it. My own field of plant science’s job is to help feed the world and maintain healthy ecosystems at the same time. The more our plant communities are hurt by climate change (and no, not all plants will do badly with higher CO2/warmer weather), the more hurt we will be. Just think about your morning cup of coffee becoming a thing of the past because a fungal rust disease made more aggressive by warmer weather wipes out coffee plantations around the world. And that’s just the beginning. We can survive without coffee. Ensuring our crops and we all have sufficient water is another hurdle we plant scientists have to solve as well. Arguably, because of naturalists (not all government funded, I realize), we have our wonderful national park system that adds to our economy too. Science uncovers ‘ecosystem services’ we take for granted that would be much more expensive if left to our own devices to deal with them.

4. Getting rid of the BS. Abraham Lincoln founded the National Academies of Science as advisors to the Government in matters technological and scientific. I dont’ know a lot about the inner workings of the national academy (I don’t think I’ll ever be a member), but they still fulfill that advisory role and make sure critical thinking and the best possible evidence is presented to the legislative and executive branches regarding matters scientific, medical, and technological. Ideally, it’s an innoculation against bullshit. It doesn’t always work, obviously. When leaders of one political party are dead set against the evidence for global climate change, there’s not much to do except to keep speaking and find communicators that will be listened to. For instance, the National Academies and the Department of Defense (and more organizations to boot) both agree that climate change is a national security issue. And both realize that preventing the worst now is better and cheaper than dealing with a full blown climate crisis. Even on the indivividual citizen level, anyone familiar with the process of science can apply it and use their resources to invest in things that positively impact their lives. Less money to ‘cure alls’/homeopathy, more to actual medicine that works. It’s not that science is the only way to think about something, but it certainly will help raise alarms to someone speaking utter nonsense. Bigfoot is not real (as much as it might be cool if it were). Science strengthens our democracy.

5. Pushing frontiers. In the US, we like to say we’re number one (whether evidence exists or not for whatever the category is). Government investing in science, with competitive funding ensures that our edge is maintained. Private companies only push frontiers as far as they can make money off of them in some reasonable time frame (that will vary depending on the size of the company I imagine– IBM can push a frontier that likely won’t pay off for 20 years or so, while a small business may not be able to invest in something that will pay off for a year or so). Governments can really push the edges and invest in the really long term future of technology, engineering, and design as well as educating the new scientists that will stand on the findings of the current generation to make even more breakthroughs. And the fact that it’s a competitive system means that we can get the best out of the system (I happen to think there’s a level of competition that’s healthy and then there’s some threshold where toxic competition really breaks the system at some level).

Science helps pass along our legacy of ideas to the next generation. And it boosts our economy in direct and indirect ways. The total science budget of the US (for science funded by any agency) is about 3% of the Discretionary Federal budget. It generates huge returns on investment over time, does foster new industries (the Internet being a prime example), but it also has other beneficial results for every taxpayer as I hope I’ve outlined above. More funding for science won’t solve all the problems that are currently stressing the system, but right now, there is a lot of excellent science that cannot get done because of funding constraints. If a proposal is rated as excellent by peer review, it ought to be able to get funding. We never know exactly where the next big idea that will directly benefit humans will come from and that is why it’s important to fund a broad base of basic research that on the surface, can seem pointless.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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