Basic and Applied research is back in the news with a nice article by Graham Love in the Irish Times. I have to say I support that idea that one really needs to ask the ‘who cares?’ question about research, especially when it is funded by the taxpayer. Of course, knowledge is inherently good – but is it worth paying for?
This debate seems to have been re-ignited by the announcement a little while back of funding for a range of projects by SFI. The Minister put a bit of a spin on these projects, emphasising their job creation potential. This is not unexpected given that he is, after all, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation!
However, to my non-expert eye, these projects look pretty fundamental and I’m sure the various PIs would not view them as being derivative in any way. Perhaps it is just a case that the awardees made very good cases for their projects and were able to demonstrate that they not only involved good (basic?) science but also the potential for generating a tangible economic benefit for society, however small.
I may have said this before but I believe very basic research, involving knowledge for knowledge sake, regardless of how obscure, should be funded as part of the third level education budget. Why? Because research activity is crucial for the general educational and learning environment of any good University. It’s not an easy thing to explain and it needs someone far more articulate than me to make the case. But arguing that our economy is doomed unless we fund people to research whatever they like is never going to work – because it’s wrong.
Coincidentally, I’m reading a funny book about unlikely research: This is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and Other WTF Research. It is genuinely hilarious in places and is the sort of book you can dip into at random. The article about packaging of chocolate bunnies had me tittering for ages. Not to mention the one about what people do with the litter in shopping trolleys. Yes, most people just chuck it into the next trolley! Or why cats roll onto their backs…..