More on basic research


There is a lot of activity in the IT letters page following on from Peter Gallagher and Emma Teelings original letter bemoaning the de-emphasising of basic research in the government funding programs. Here are some comments that I have on some statements in the yesterday’s batch of letters (qoutes from letters in italics.).

It is interesting to note that the basic research area pursued by Peter Higgs and other scientists which led to this remarkable result is currently not regarded by Science Foundation Ireland as science worth funding.

That is true but misses the point. Whoever funded Peter Higgs (if anyone) probably also funded many other basic research projects. They did not know in advance who would make important breakthroughs and who would do the usual incremental research that most of us do. In effect, the funding agency had to take a punt that something of lasting value would emerge from a range of projects. (I’m assuming that funders always want something back and don’t put any value on research for research sake in the same way that they might do with funding art galleries, for example.) And this is the problem with funding basic research. The funding may occasionally lead to something dramatic, but more likely, it will lead to very little of economic benefit. In effect, the state has to gamble with the taxpayer’s money. Sure, they may miss out on a lottery win if they don’t buy a ticket, but it is far more likely that buying tickets will be money down the drain. In my view, researchers need to come up with far more robust arguments for why their particular ‘blue-skies’ research should be funded by the taxpayer and not use waffly arguments about the ‘knowledge economy’ and being ‘left behind’. (Personally, I think fundamental academic research can be justified through its role in the education system. Some of the arguments are subtle and relate to the atmosphere and culture within a University, others might relate to the University’s international reputation. A more tangible argument might relate to the crucial importance of postgraduate students in undergraduate teaching.)

To encourage young people into science we must be part of the global adventure that is “pure” science and fund “blue skies” research. If we want oranges we must plant the trees!

This is a statement that raises a very important issue, I believe. Yes, we want to attract the best and brightest into science and mathematics but we should do it honestly. (Think of the dishonesty involved when politicians speak about the ‘need’ to double the number of PhDs.) Being honest means admitting that most research is not at all like the hunt for the Higgs, but very often a far more mundane activity. Coincidentally, I was at Brian Greene’s talk last night and he said something similar, namely that young people are drawn towards ‘hot’ science by popularisations and are subsequently shocked to find the amount of preparatory mathematics that they need to learn before they can do anything.

Yet, those involved in research often love it and I think this has a lot to do with the lifestyle associated with being a researcher, rather than the precise subject matter. If we want to get people into the research we need to promote the attractions of the day-to-day aspects of the job. But we must be honest about the likely subject matter and the career prospects.

As a final point, I want to raise something that has always interested me. Why does nearly all the commentary on the funding of science come from scientists, especially academic ones? Scientists are not really qualified to make judgements about the potential economic benefits of research. They are experts in the sciences and will always advocate more funding. Surely this is really an issue for economists, or perhaps sociologists. Economists are ubiquitous in our media but except for the occasional foray into this area by Colm McCarthy, there seem to be few, if any, with anything substantial to say on this topic or who have done some rigorous analysis. And I don’t mean analysis of academic rankings or citations. For example, what is the cost per job for jobs created directly through science funding. Analyses like these have often been done for jobs ‘created’ by the IDA. How important is fundamental research activity to attracting FDI? Seems to me like there is lots of hard economics to be done here.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to More on basic research

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » More on basic research

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