Blog 87. Wall Street and the myth of basic science

The 24 October Wall Street Journal featured an long (2200 words) essay by Matt Ridley (member, British House of Lords; author; and former chair of a failed British bank).  Entitled “The Myth of Basic Science,” the essay argues that publicly funded basic scientific research is not beneficial, either to technology or to the economy.

“For more than a half century,” Ridley says, “it has been an article of faith that science would not get funded if government did not do it, and economic growth would not happen if science did not get funded by the taxpayer.”

That much of Ridley’s argument is true.  Following WWII, Vannevar Bush, President Roosevelt’s science advisor, wrote a report saying “new knowledge can be obtained only through basic scientific research.”  That view became a guiding assumption, an assumption that basic research feeds applied research, which in turn generates new technology and economic progress.

That assumption is indeed a myth, but it promotes worthwhile basic science, even if for an inaccurate reason.

Ridley’s essay prompted a lengthy (1200 words) rebuttal in the October 28 online edition of Physics Today, the news magazine for physicists.  Why should physicists squabble with the Wall Street Journal?  Well, The WSJ chose to pontificate on science, and the scientists’ own medium simply returned the favor.  With a more accurate argument.

Ridley says “government funding crowded out philanthropic and commercial funding, which might have had different priorities.”

Crowded out?  Are we to believe that government funding took away the scientists and the facilities that would otherwise be occupied by commercially funded basic science?  There were places, the once-famous Bell Laboratories, and IBM and RCA, places that in 1960 had some intense research on semiconductors leading to transistors and today’s LED lights.  Did government “crowd out” or did industry recognize that basic research rarely generates an immediately profitable product and terminate its basic research, in favor of the quarterly bottom line?

Ridley says “…’basic science’ isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think.”  That’s right.  The Physics Today rebuttal cited reports by the National Research Council and by the American Physical Society that both discredit the linear model in which basic research leads directly to applied research and on to practical application.  However, the WSJ itself is wrong when it heads the Ridley editorial with the headline “Technological evolution … has little to do with the abstractions of the lab.”  At any point in time, the then-current technological evolution is grounded on the abstractions—abstractions of previous labs.

Technology is always based on abstract scientific principles, but those principles may have been developed decades or generations prior to the technology.  Newton’s laws of mass and motion (published 1687) underlie the operation of today’s mechanical systems larger than individual atoms—from automobiles to rocket ships.  The academic quantum mechanics and solid-state physics of the 1920’s-1960’s made possible our electronic gadgets.  Einstein’s general relativity (ca 1915) is required for the GPS system in your smart phone.  Neglecting this, Ridley implies that the advances in basic knowledge will simply happen as a result of developing technology.  That’s a mistake.

Ridley doesn’t distinguish between basic research, applied research, and product development.  Basic research answers fundamental questions about physical, chemical, and biological things in the universe.  In contrast, the subsequent applied research and product development are the tinkering and testing and genius needed to make useful devices.

Ridley argues that public support for basic research is unnecessary because the evolution of new technology will create whatever new information is needed.  Ridley cites the invention of the telephone by Bell and independently by Gray as an example, failing to notice that the telephone utilized the previous basic research on the laws of electromagnetism, stuff the WSJ headline called “abstractions of the lab.”

Industry now supports only a minor fraction of American basic scientific research.  I don’t argue who should support the basic research, but if industry can no longer afford to do it despite the multi-million dollar salaries of its CEO’s, then the government has to support it to provide fundamental knowledge for future developments that we cannot foresee.  Just which basic sciences should be supported—ah, that’s where even the scientists disagree.  But regarding public support for basic science in general, it appears that both Ridley and the WSJ have motivations more political than journalistic.  That’s sad.

2 thoughts on “Blog 87. Wall Street and the myth of basic science

  1. Jim Cost ·

    Hi Don,
    I have been cogitating a bit lately about Basic Research.
    Yes, when I was at Ford Scientific Lab they let us run free in choosing our projects. Not any more. The evolution of most all science work appears to be motivated financially.

    The research that has me wondering about whether it should be supported is that of the Large Hadron Collider. One might ask whether our earth might better benefit if that massive effort, both in money and work were to have been spent on a more ‘basic’ earth problem, that of, say, global warming. Another way to think about basic science is to ask, “What needs to be fixed?” instead of “What do we most want to know?”

    • I, too, think it important to accent earth, population, and health sciences as contrasted with space sciences or particle physics, just because we face global problems. However, I wouldn’t simply zero out those pursuits that are purely intellectual, such as astrophysics, because you never know where they will lead, and intellect must be stimulated. We can never influence what happens in the stars, but the stars might teach us something.

      Currently, congressional pressure is somewhat against the earth sciences due to the dislike of global climate investigations. As reported by Physics Today, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas recently introduced a bill that would require the National Science Foundation to show how each grant it awards is “worthy of Federal funding” and “in the national interest.” I fear political selection of scientific criteria can lead to political correctness in science, and political correctness is not always scientifically correct.

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