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.