20 February 2014

The Science Advocate's Dilemma

I am in Bonn, at a fascinating (if you are a science policy wonk) workshop titled, "Basic and Applied Research: Historical Semantics of a Key Distinction in 20th Century Science Policy" and organized by David Kaldewey, University of Bonn, and Désirée Schauz, Munich Centre for the History of Science and Technology. The workshop so far has been excellent.

I'm speaking tomorrow and I will mention John Kay's column in the FT from earlier this week, in which he wrote about what has been called basic, fundamental or pure research:
In 1969 Robert Wilson, director of the National Accelerator Laboratory, was testifying before the US Congress. He sought funding for a particle accelerator (forerunner of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern where the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012). Asked by Senator John Pastore how his project would help defeat the Russians, he responded: “It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another . . . are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets . . . new knowledge has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”
So why don't scientists spend more time defending science as comparable to painting, sculpting or poetry?

The graph at the top of this post provides an answer. On the left is the FY2013 budget for the US National Endowment for the Humanities -- the agency which supports painting, sculpture and poetry. On the right is the federal budget for R&D, which is justified in terms of its utility. The graph says it all.

In the coming weeks I'll have a new piece out on the comprehensive consensus in science policy over the notion that science should be useful, so much so that US Tea Party members are reciting the views of early 20th century communists. Stay tuned for that.