The imperative of funding basic science

Someone who had begun to read geometry with Euclid, when he had learned the first proposition, asked Euclid, "But what shall I get by learning these things?" whereupon Euclid called his slave and said, "Give him three-pence, since he must make gain o

Erik Nelson

As it should be, politicians and policy makers in this country are continually looking for ways to develop our economy. Often, architects of economic development plans look to technological change or innovation to drive growth. The development of the automobile, jet, computer and the Internet, all technological marvels at the time of their creation, might have been the 20th century’s greatest economic development engines.

The ability of technical and scientific innovation to drive economic growth is the reason that even in an era of limited state revenue and corporate downsizing, the state of Minnesota and private companies have allocated millions of dollars to the University’s Molecular and Cellular Biology and microbial and plant genomics buildings. It is hoped that research at these centers will lead to biomedical and agricultural applications that economically benefit the University, the state of Minnesota and global society in general.

Given recent economic development funding trends, it appears the biological and health sciences are the areas that most policy makers and Americans are looking to for future growth and innovation. Indeed, an increase in human longevity and the willingness of many Americans to take drugs for any minor injury or neurosis bodes well for the pharmaceutical industry, the scientists behind the drugs and communities and entities. The United States’ best students have even picked up on the economic possibilities in the biological sciences: Between 1992 and 2000 the majority of U.S. citizens and permanent residents scoring 750 or above on the Graduate Record Examination quantitative scale and entering science and engineering graduate programs chose to focus on biological sciences. In the past the focus on biological sciences was not as strong.

However, what about the scientific and technical subjects that cannot produce immediate or near-certain economic returns in the future – research that is not immediately applicable? Research that contributes to the public good and not a company’s bottom line? Such basic science, including theoretical physics, abstract mathematics and other physical sciences, are increasingly ignored by policymakers, universities, private companies and this country’s best students.

This is a short-sighted development. Seemingly impractical science and mathematics, initially studied only to deepen human understanding, can eventually lead to useful and unexpected benefits. For example, global reliance on the Internet has generated a great need for fail-proof encryption. It turns out that algorithms using prime numbers can be used to devise powerful encryption tools. However, the major hypothesis surrounding the distribution of prime numbers, the Riemann Hypothesis, has yet to be proven. Cracking this hypothesis (or determining that it is spurious), traditionally seen as a purely intellectual exercise, could engender an algorithm that creates fail-proof encryption.

Or consider Ernest Rutherford, the discoverer of the nucleus of the atom – as late as the 1930s he could not even see the impact of his discovery: “Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of atoms is talking moonshine.” Finally, think about Thomas Hull, an assistant professor of mathematics at Merrimack College. He has spent years on the math of origami, the traditional Japanese folding art. For Hull, it was a purely intellectual exercise until a fellow origami-mathematics devotee, Robert Lang, worked with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to devise a telescope lens 5 meters in diameter that could be folded origami-style to fit in a small compartment in a rocket.

Basic science with no intuitive practical application has always been a hard sell. According to George Johnson, writing recently in The New York Times, “Several decades ago when physicist Robert R. Wilson was soliciting money for a high-energy particle accelerator at Fermilab, he was asked at a Senate hearing how the project would contribute to national defense. ‘It has nothing to do with defending our country,’ Wilson famously conceded, ‘except to make it worth defending.’ ” There was a time – namely, during the Cold War – when physics and aerospace sciences, examples of hard science disciplines, were very important to this country and funded on the federal level according to their national priority.

Like the former Soviet Union and the Cold War, an emphasis on basic scientific research seems to have somewhat dissipated. The funding of large scientific endeavors is no longer advocated by our national leaders. Erich Bloch, former director of the National Science Foundation, has observed that “over time, (federal support for) basic research will account for a lower percentage of total (federal research and development) funding as compared to the past.” Or as John Noble Wilford pointed out in a piece recently published in The New York Times, the funding of large scientific endeavors, such as interplanetary space travel, is no longer “politically sustainable in a society grown increasingly wary of big government projects that might increase taxes, a society, on the whole, more defensive, less optimistic and more inward-looking.”

For some, shrinking federal support for basic research and development is seen as good policy. In a controversial book published in 1997, Terence Kealey, a professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, claims that government funding of basic research is wasteful and counterproductive. In a Cato Institute publication summarizing his book, “The Economic Laws of Scientific Research,” Kealey had this to say: “The big myth about scientific research is that government must fund it. The argument is that private companies will not fund science, especially pure science, for fear that their competitors will ‘capture’ the fruits of that investment. Yet, in practice, companies fund pure science very generously, and government funding displaces private research money.”

He goes on to claim this displacement is inefficient. “Government funding of university science is largely unproductive. When Edwin Mansfield surveyed 76 major U.S. technology firms, he found that only approximately 3 percent of sales could not have been achieved “without substantial delay, in the absence of recent academic research.” Thus some 97 percent of commercially useful industrial technological development is, in practice, generated by in-house research and development. Academic science is of relatively small economic importance, and by funding it in public universities, governments are largely subsidizing predatory foreign companies.” Kealey even questions the role of research and development in economic growth: “The U.S. per capita gross domestic product has grown at around 2 percent a year since 1820, and the government largesse (for research and development) of the last 50 years has not altered that.”

Kealey does make many valid points. Companies are very good at bringing applied research to the market if it has economic potential. However, privately funded research is only committed if the private entity has a revenue-producing end product in mind. It is doubtful that any private entity would have funded Ernest Rutherford’s research given that the existence of a nucleus was not known before his research, and the application of his still-unknown discovery impossible to predict. It is these future and wholly unexpected discoveries, such as creating energy by splitting atoms, which can provide enormous positive shocks to economies.

Real, robust economic growth in this country and around the world is only sustainable if we continue to significantly fund visionary and theoretical research and science. This includes giving the world’s best students the wherewithal to pursue relatively unglamorous and nonlucrative scientific research positions, especially those not related to the biological sciences. As Bloch notes: “For the past 30 or 40 years, the United States has substantially depended on the brainpower of people who came here as immigrants – students or faculty, permanently or temporarily. But as other countries continue to build their own bases in science and technology and increase their levels of industrialization, fewer qualified people will come to the United States or stay here.”

Even more important, however, is providing incentives for the United States’ best students to pursue a life of basic research. To this end, William Zumeta, a professor and associate dean at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington and others have called on the federal government to devise a well-funded program that will give the United States’ brightest students impressive monetary and career incentives to pursue graduate study in the hard sciences. As Zumeta and doctoral student Joyce S. Raveling note, “Given the immediate and long-term value to society of keeping our best and brightest young people involved in scientific research, a program just large enough to make an impact on these students’ choices seems a very good bet to produce benefits exceeding its costs. There are probably few better investments in the federal budget portfolio today.”

Erik Nelson is the Daily’s editorial and opinions editor. He can be reached at [email protected]