While the body is struggling to recover from illness, priorities shift. Survive first. Drink. Eat. Stand upright without fainting. Feed the kids because they can’t do it themselves. Two days earlier, I was thinking of running a half-marathon, now happy to make it to the bathroom. Forgotten the parking ticket and the tax return.
We see the same shift of priorities on other levels of our societies. If a system, may that be an organism or a group of people, experiences a potential threat to existence, energy is redirected to the essential needs, to survival first. An unexpected death in the family requires time for recovery and reorganization. A nation that is being attacked redirects resources to the military.
The human body’s defense against viruses does not require conscious control. It executes a program that millions of years of evolution have optimized, a program we can support with medication and nutrition. But when it comes to priorities of our nations, we have no program to follow. We first have to decide what is necessary for survival, and what can be put on hold while we recover.
The last years have not been good years economically, neither in the European Union, nor in North America. We all feel the pressure. We’re forced to focus our priorities. And every week I read a new article about cuts in some research budget.
“Europe's leaders slash proposed research budget,” I read. “Big cuts to R&D budgets [in the UK],” I read. “More than 50 Nobel laureates are urging [the US] Congress to spare the federal science establishment from the looming budget cut,” I read.
An organism befallen by illness manages a shortage of energy. A nation under economic pressure manages a shortage of money. But money is only the tool for the management. And it is a complicated tool, its value influenced by many factors including psychological, and it is not just under national management. In the end, its purpose is to direct labor. And here is the real energy of our nations: Humans, working. It is the amounts of working hours in different professions that budget cuts manage.
In reaction to a perceived threat, nations shift priorities and redirect human labor. They might aim at sustainability. At independence from oil imports. They invest in public health. Or they cut back on these investments. When the pressure raises, what is left will be the essentials. Energy and food, housing and safety. Decisions have to be made. The people who assemble weapons are not available to water the fields.
How vital is science?
We all know that progress depends on scientific research. Somebody has to develop new technologies. Somebody has to test whether they are safe to use. Everybody understands what applied science does: In goes brain, out comes what you’ll smear into your face or wear on your nose tomorrow.
But not everybody understands that this isn’t all of science. Besides the output-oriented research, there is the research that is not conducted with the aim of developing new technologies. It is curiosity-driven. It follows the loose ends of today's theories, it aims to understand the puzzle that is the data. Most scientists call it basic or fundamental research. The NSF calls it transformative research, the ERC frontier research. Sometimes I’ve heard the expression blue-skies research. Whatever the name, its defining property is that you don’t know the result before you’ve done the research.
Since many people do not understand what fundamental research is or why it is necessary, if science funding is cut, basic research suffers most. Politicians lack the proper words to justify investment into something that doesn’t seem to have any tangible outcome. Something that, it seems, just pleases the curiosity of academics. “The question is academic,” has to come to mean “The world doesn’t care about its answer.”
A truly shocking recent example comes from Canada:
“Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value," John McDougall, president of the [Canadian National Research Council], said in announcing the shift in the NRC's research focus away from discovery science solely to research the government deems "commercially viable". [Source: Toronto Sun] [Update: He didn't literally say this as the Sun quoted it, see here for the correct quote.]Oh, Canada. (Also: Could somebody boot the guy, he’s in the wrong profession.)
Do they not understand how vital basic research is for their nation? Or do they decide not to raise the point? I suspect that at least some of those involved in such a decision approve cutting back on basic research not because they don’t understand what it’s good for, but because they believe their people don’t understand what it’s good for. (And they would be wrong, if you scroll down and look at the poll results...)
I suspect that scientists are an easy target, they usually don’t offer much resistance. They're not organized, for not to say disorganized. Scientists will try to cope until it becomes impossible and then pack their bags and their families and move to elsewhere. And once they’re gone, Canada, you’ll have to invest much more money than you save now to get them back.
Do they really not know that basic research, in one sentence, is the applied research in 100 years?
It isn’t possible, in basic research, to formulate a commercial application as goal because nobody can make predictions or formulate research plans over 100 years. There are too many unknown unknowns, the system is too complex, there are too many independent knowledge seekers in the game. Nobody can tell reliably what is going to happen.
They say “commercially viable”, but what they actually mean is “commercially viable within 5 years”.
The scientific theories that modern technology and medicine are based on – from LCD displays over DVD-players to spectroscopy and magnetic resonance imaging, from laser surgery to quantum computers – none of them would exist had scientists pursued “commercial viability”. Without curiosity-driven research, we deliberately ignore paths to new areas of knowledge. Applied research will inevitably run dry sooner or later. Scientific progress is not sustainable without basic research.
As your mother told you, if you have a fever, watch your fluid intake. Even if you are tired and don’t feel like moving a finger, drink that glass of water. The woman with the flu who didn’t drink enough today is the woman in the hospital on an IV-drip tomorrow. And the nation under economic pressure who didn’t invest in basic research today is the nation that will wish there was a global IV-drop for their artery tomorrow.
And here’s some other people saying the same thing in less words [via Steve Hsu]:
I know that on this blog a post like this preaches to the choir. So today I have homework for you. Tell your friends and your neighbors and the other parents at the daycare place. Tell them what basic research is and why it’s vital. And if you don’t feel like talking, send them a link or show them a video.