Maybe politicians and policymakers are smarter than scientists

To continue with the basic research meme, here’s Lewis Branscomb distinguishing the goals of research with how it’s conducted (emphasis added):

I believe it would be much easier to understand what is required if the agencies would define basic research not by the character of the benefits the public expects to gain (large but unpredictable and long-delayed benefits in the case of Newtonian research) but rather by the highly creative environment in which the best basic research is carried out…If we pursue this line of reasoning, we are immediately led to the realization that the goals to which Jeffersonian research is dedicated require progress in both scientific understanding and in new technological discoveries. Thus not only basic science but a broad range of basic technology research of great value to society is required. The key idea here is to separate in our policy thinking the motives for spending public money on research from the choice of environments in which to perform the work.

I have to wonder how much of that thinking is confused, not in the minds of politicians or policymakers, but in scientists and the public. The Air Force program managers who funded my graduate research knew that basic science  conducted in the relative freedom of academia could also serve national needs. Along those lines, since the 1970’s DARPA has explicitly tried to fund high-risk high-reward research. Much of the work has occurred in universities, and has spanned natural science, engineering and even (occasionally!) social science departments. So again, it appears that the decision-makers have known for a very long time that there is no real conflict between basic and applied research. Whatever scientists might believe and say in public, policymakers and politicians are smart enough to not listen to them. The NSF, the only agency that’s really dedicated to science for science’s sake, receives a paltry 4% of federal R&D spending. So scientists push a narrative that the people in power clearly, and thankfully, don’t believe.

Which leads to me to say again, as I did in my last post, that efforts such as Branscomb’s are not really about changing funding patterns. They’re more about changing scientists’ priorities and the culture of academia. Those are worthwhile goals, and ones I support in some measure. I suspect these ideas would get a lot more traction if Branscomb simply said he wanted to make academia more welcoming to need-driven research. In my experience, young graduate students are yearning for that opportunity. Invoking rhetoric about Jeffersonian science just muddles the message.


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