State Funding and Curiosity-Driven Research

Today, Dick Ahlstrom bemoans the lack of a clear policy for research funding in Ireland. I’m not sure I would agree that there is no policy. It’s just that the existing policy sees state-funded science purely as a short-term mechanism for funding industrial innovation and even job creation.

But the question of what the state should fund remains a challenging one. It is by no means obvious what a small state should do. Yes, we would all love to pour lots of money into all sorts of research, including so-called ‘curiosity-driven’ research, but is that a sustainable policy for a small country like ours?

Of course, for the sake of our third level education system, the state does need to fund a broad range of research – both in the sciences and the humanities – but is it really essential, in purely economic terms, that the state should put significant amounts of money into ‘basic’ research? Some arguments hold water – preventing a brain drain is one of those. But will we do real damage to our growing economy if we emphasise strategic research rather than curiosity driven research? Most scientists would say “yes” and quote examples from history where apparently curiosity-driven research has led to all sorts of unanticipated spin-offs. The problem is that scientists are not disinterested parties here and tend to interpret history in a way that reinforces their own biases.

Recently I have been working my way through Jon Agar’s “Science in the 20th Century and Beyond”. It’s a fascinating read, albeit hard going in places. But one of the themes that occurs throughout the book is the idea of the ‘working world’. Agar repeatedly makes the point that in many branches of science, advances in basic research were not so much driven by curiosity but by the demands of the ‘working world’. He gives lots of fascinating examples, including how our basic understanding of parasite behaviour (and immunology) was driven essentially by colonialism. The whole field of psychology was driven by the need to treat traumatised soldiers returning from the First World War. Huge advances were made in plant genetics, driven by the demands for increased rates of food production. Indeed advances in modern molecular biology are often driven by the need to cure disease; in the end, the disease often gives more to science that science does to the disease! Most intriguing of all is the suggestion that Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity was not simply the result of his musing about riding a beam of light but was fuelled by his constant exposure to the very important (at the time) economic problem of synchronising clocks. In the rapidly expanding global economy of the early 20th century, the problem of time was a hugely practical one and Einstein came across more than one patent on clock synchronization during his time in the Patent Office in Berne.

The point made throughout the book is that the science with the most impact does not typically emerge from following one’s curiosity but by asking the right questions; and very often the best questions are the ones that are occupying the mind of the ‘working world’.

As a chemical engineer who has seen engineers make huge contributions to basic science (especially chemical thermodynamics) by asking ‘working world’ questions, I see a lot of sense in Agar’s arguments. If we are to formulate an appropriate policy for science in Ireland, we have to aim to use state resources to ask the best questions and not concern ourselves with false distinctions between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research. All state funded research should be ‘strategic’ but strategic need not mean derivative.

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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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4 Responses to State Funding and Curiosity-Driven Research

  1. cormac says:

    It’s true that clock synchronization was a big issue at the time Einstein postulated the special theory…and legend has it that there was a giant clock right outside the patent office in Berne! However, I have not seen anything in AE’s writings to confirm that this was a spur for the special theory; on the other hand the light beam gedankenexperiment is often mentioned. So the sync business could be retrospective fitting.
    Re basic vs applied research, the problem is that it is hard to produce good applied research if the fundamentals aren’t there, i.e., if no-one is teaching or researching fundamental science to a high level. It always surprises me that Irish academics never refer to DIAS in arguments like this, surely a relevant example. In 1939,de Valera set up an Institute for theoretical physics in defiance of political colleagues and the opposition, The Institute immediately attracted top international names and revolutionized mathematics and physics in Ireland and in Irish universities. Not one ‘useful’ patent emerged from DIAS in the first ten years, but it certainly put Ireland on the map as far as relativity and quantum physics were concerned.To this day, a great many HoDs of maths-physics departments around Europe have spent time at DIAS. By contrast, I often wonder just how much ‘useful’ science really comes out of all these SFI grants; we hear a great deal about the inputs, less about the outputs….

    • Greg Foley says:

      Cormac

      I think the original source of the Special Relativity idea is the book “Einstein’s Clocks and Poincare’s Maps ” by Peter Galison but I haven’t read it yet.
      I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that by trying solve ‘real world’ problems we often uncover entire swathes of basic science that are not well understood. In other words the ‘applied’ drives the ‘basic’. I think many real world problems are technically engineering problems but to solve them we need to make advances in very basic science. I always give the example of distillation (in a chemical engineering context) where the need to solve the practical problem of separating petrochemicals on the basis of their volatility spawned a huge amount of basic research into the chemical thermodynamics of complex liquid mixtures. Even the engineering problem of putting a person on the moon revealed large gaps in basic sciences, e.g. material science. (Most people would view this as basic research into ‘space science’ driving spin-offs. I’m not so sure this is the best way to look at it.)

      Actually another good book which I intend to re-read over Christmas is Gertner’s history of Bell Labs. Again, a theme that emerges is that trying to solve practical communication problems drove basic research in all sorts of areas.

      I would agree with your comments about SFI science. I think an awful lot of funded science falls between two stools – it’s neither very important basic science nor is it likely to lead to any application.

  2. cormac says:

    I agree with you on real-world problems, no question.
    haven’t read Agar’s book yet, but I have certainly heard Peter Galison in action more than once. In my view, he belongs firmly in the category of social context historians – I wouldn’t be at all suprised to find that he assumed a motivation for Einstein’s SR for which there is no evidence. It’s well worth having a look at the1905 paper itself – much better to read Einstein in his own words, he makes his motivations very clear

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