Why indeed. The supposed importance of state funding for curiosity-driven research comes up very few months, usually sparked by a column in the Irish Times. From the outset let me state that I think ‘pure’ research is worth funding. I think it is worth funding because third level education needs research activity in all areas, not just strategic ones if it is to fulfil its educational remit. More importantly, I think that science has an important cultural role to play in our societies just like art galleries or theatre or opera or public parks or forest trails. Science is culture just as poetry is culture or sculpture is culture or film is culture. Science at it its best tells is about who and what we are.
But make no mistake, the vast majority of scientific discoveries have absolutely no impact on the world around us and do not affect the lives of people in any practical way. There are the occasional blockbusters of course that have major impact on the world but these are very occasional indeed.
But science as culture is a lofty idea and science is expensive, much more expensive than the arts. And scientific findings tend to affect the few rather than the many. Science is culture but popular culture it isn’t. How do you convince the politician and the hard pressed taxpayer that funding curiosity-driven science is worthwhile? The first thing you don’t assume is that the value of curiosity-driven science is self-evidently valuable to a society. The second thing you don’t do is mention general relativity and GPS! – that’s one of those freakish discoveries that comes along once in a century. The third thing you don’t do is suggest that our future economy is critically dependent on curiosity-driven science because of the dangers of being ‘left behind’. (There is no evidence for a causative relationship between basic science and economic growth.) You might mention the brain drain but then you have to be able to counter the argument that the purpose of funding curiosity-driven science is then simply to keep people in the country so that they can do more curiosity-driven science.
The fact is that this is not an easy argument to make but it can be made I believe. But it needs the advocates for the funding of curiosity driven research to adopt a much more humble tone, to accept that the case for curiosity-driven research is not at all self-evident and to accept that the onus is on them to make the case – not on the doubters to justify their doubt. A bit of scientific reasoning is required.