16 October 2012

New Bridges Column: The Origins of "Basic Research"

My latest column for Bridges is out and it is titled, The Origins of "Basic Research." Here is how the column starts out:
In any discussion of government science policies, it rarely seems to take long for someone to invoke the notion of "basic research." For instance, writing in The Washington Post last month, Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and US Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN) announced the "Golden Goose Awards" to "recognize the often-surprising benefits of science to society."

In their appeal for more funding for scientific research, Leshner and Cooper argued that: "Across society, we don't have to look far for examples of basic research that paid off." They cite the creation of Google as a prime example of such payoffs: "Larry Page and Sergey Brin, then a National Science Foundation [NSF] fellow, did not intend to invent the Google search engine. Originally, they were intrigued by a mathematical challenge ..."

The appealing imagery of a scientist who simply follows his curiosity and then makes a discovery with a large societal payoff is part of the core mythology of post-World War II science policies. The mythology shapes how governments around the world organize, account for, and fund research. A large body of scholarship has critiqued postwar science policies and found that, despite many notable successes, the science policies that may have made sense in the middle of the last century may need updating in the 21st century.

In short, investments in "basic research" are not enough. Benoit Godin has asserted (PDF) that: "The problem is that the academic lobby has successfully claimed a monopoly on the creation of new knowledge, and that policy makers have been persuaded to confuse the necessary with the sufficient condition that investment in basic research would by itself necessarily lead to successful applications." Or as Leshner and Cooper declare in The Washington Post: "Federal investments in R&D have fueled half of the nation's economic growth since World War II."

A closer look at the actual history of Google reveals how history becomes mythology. The 1994 NSF project that funded the scientific work underpinning the search engine that became Google (as we know it today) was conducted from the start with commercialization in mind: "The technology developed in this project will provide the 'glue' that will make this worldwide collection usable as a unified entity, in a scalable and economically viable fashion." In this case, the scientist following his curiosity had at least one eye simultaneously on commercialization.
To read the rest head here.  To read the underlying research paper see it here in PDF. All of my past Bridges columns can be found here. And to read the latest full issue of the always-excellent Bridges, go here.


  1. Interesting. Clearly fundamental research can lead to findings that can be commercialized. There are also examples of investigations of technology that led to fundamental discoveries in science.

    The question I suppose is whether government should play a role in encouraging the technological applications of the results of fundamental science. The role of the government in promoting the development of many technologies to the point of commercial viability seems obvious, as in the role played by military technology development, the government's nuclear energy programs, and the space program.

  2. Academic scientists arguing for basic research are as objective in their position as oil company scientists are in theirs. Both serve vested interests. In the case of academic science, just keep the money coming through the pipeline, and never mind what you get for it. Let's face it - research into the evolution of sexual dimorphism in tropical insects is not going to produce the next big jobs producer. Much research produced with NSF grants doesn't even hold up over the following ten years, much less pay back anything of value beyond the interests of a handful of academics. We could cut half of NSF's grant budget and be guaranteed that it would do no harm to the economy.

  3. Mark B. makes a good point that seems to get lost in your analysis of the text of the original NSF grant application that funded one of the then students who started Google.

    Mark says,

    "...research into the evolution of sexual dimorphism in tropical insects is not going to produce the next big jobs producer."

    I agree that it seems unlikely that this type of insect research would lead to economic impacts. That's why scientist have to determine how their basic research may have positive repercussions for society broadly. Someone who studies sexual dimorphism in insects may note in an NSF graduate student award proposal that farming these types of animals may help local governments and organizations manage organic waste, say from an agricultural business. Or, if they wanted to do basic science research into computing, they may say something like, "The technology developed in this project will provide the 'glue' that will make this worldwide collection usable as a unified entity, in a scalable and economically viable fashion."

    Every good scientist hopes that his or her research betters society as a whole. That's how we can go on salaries that don't compare well with other professions that necessitate advanced degrees like law, medicine or business management, work 100 hours a week analyzing data, deriving new physical laws and designing and building equipment to make measurements and have to continually fight to prove our worth in the world. So that the original NSF grant application (it was an NSF graduate student award if I'm not mistaken) had the idea that the work could benefit society in some is not surprising. Every good proposal contains those types of pitches. This seems to be the major disconnect you're having Roger. This NSF proposal's connection to commercialization in not novel. Just ask any 'basic' scientist about it, and I'm sure you'll hear about all kinds of ways their basic science can help society commercially.

    So if the type of language in the highlighted NSF proposal from which Google was founded is the standard-bearer for how policy should be formed, then the only change in science policy should be more money, just as Dr. Leshner and Rep. Cooper say.