. . . under pressure for immediate results, and unless deliberate policies are set up to guard against it, applied science invariably drives out pure.Writing in last week's Nature, Dan Sarewitz wonders if this relationship has now been reversed based on recent budget numbers:
[O]ver the past 15 years, mission agencies such as the USGS that seek principally to serve public goals rather than to advance science have experienced minimal budgetary growth, in some cases not even keeping up with inflation. Since 1996, research funds at the USGS have risen by a mere 16%; at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 11%; the Environmental Protection Agency, 33%; the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), 38%; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 45%. Even Department of Defense research has grown relatively modestly, by 60% in 15 years.Sarewitz explains that it is in the self-interests of the scientific community to support blue-sky research at the expense of that conducted by the mission agencies:
Yet, over this same period, government funding for research doubled. Most of the increase went to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NIH's budget has tripled; the NSF's more than doubled. Together, they captured three-quarters of all the spending increases for federal science. (Although the NIH is in some respects a mission agency, its priorities, its work force and the image it has cultivated focus on fundamental science, a reality acknowledged in director Francis Collins's efforts to create an institute to translate research into useful technology).
One important reason may be that the leading public voices speaking on behalf of research funding come mostly from the high-prestige frontiers of science, and from the institutions associated with such research — universities, the National Academies, the professional scientific societies, and so on.So-called "basic research" is important, but so too is research conducted by mission agencies. Nowadays it seems that basic drives out the applied.
Last November, for example, the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science called for “rethinking the science system” to make the funding of university researchers more efficient (A. I. Leshner Science 334, 738; 2011). This is a worthy goal, but nowhere in his editorial, or in the many similar examples of hand-wringing, is it acknowledged that the main goal of rethinking science should be to ensure that the scientific enterprise continues to meet existing and future challenges to public well-being, not simply to protect science for its own sake.