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Reminding Ourselves of the Importance of Basic Scientific Research

November 5, 2013


In a post entitled Fostering Genius, I discussed a number of research and academic organizations in and around the Princeton, NJ, area. The organization to which I devoted most of the post was The Institute for Advanced Study, a research center most famous for once having counted Albert Einstein among its members. He isn’t the only genius that has called the Institute home. Over the years some 33 Nobel laureates have worked there and, since 1936, its members have claimed the majority of math’s top prize — the Fields Medal. One of the things that distinguishes the Institute is that its focus is basic research rather than applied research. Its members are trying to understand the fundamental principles that make the universe tick. The Institute’s current Director, Dutch mathematical physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf, told reporter Eliza told Gray that seeking to expand the boundaries of science “may be a luxury that America can no longer afford — or at least appreciate the importance of.” [“The Original Genius Bar,” Time, 22 July 2013]


As evidence that scientific research no longer holds a cherished place in contemporary America, Gray notes that the Institute’s “influence in Washington has fallen, as has Washington’s interest in science.” She goes on to report:

“Over the past 25 years, the U.S. government’s spending on physical-science research has dropped by half. Sequestration — the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts in the discretionary and defense budgets over the next decade — has accelerated that, slicing budgets for agencies that support science research, like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.”

Even without sequestration, Congress’ interest in science was waning. Gideon Rachman traces the growing lack of interest in science back to Ronald Reagan. He explains:

“Traditional conservatives disdain populism and respect knowledge. They believe in balancing the government’s books. And they are pragmatists who are suspicious of ideology. Reagan debased all these ideas – and modern American conservatism is still suffering the consequences. The most damaging idea propagated by the Reagan myth is the cult of the idiot-savant (the wise fool).” [“How Reagan ruined conservatism,” Financial Times, 1 March 2010]

Rachman notes that Dinesh D’Souza’s admiring biography of Reagan “recounts numerous stories in which intellectuals – even conservative intellectuals – disdained Reagan.” But D’Souza, like most subsequent Reagan supporters, “concludes, the ‘dummy’ was right and the pointy-heads were wrong.” Rachman continues:

“A dangerous chain of reasoning flows from this popular version of history. Reagan was apparently stupid and often startlingly ignorant – but he was vindicated by history. Therefore, goes the theory, ignorance and stupidity are good signs. They show that a politician is in tune with the deeper wisdom of the people. Once you start thinking like that, it is but a short step to Sarah Palin.”

Calling Reagan “stupid and often startlingly ignorant” is neither constructive nor truthful; but, I do believe that Rachman’s point about dismissing the value of intellectuals can be traced back to his presidency. I’m not sure that Rachman really believes that Reagan was stupid. He writes, “The real Reagan was, in fact, rather more pragmatic than the ‘Reagan myth’ that sprang up after he left office.” Nevertheless, “he left behind a poisonous legacy for the conservative movement.” By showing a disdain for elites (including academic elites) and championing the ordinary, the Reagan legacy undermined the cause of scientific advancement for a generation or more. Gray writes, “The tension is particularly pronounced now, in the supercharged partisan atmosphere of budget debates.” To further substantiate her point, she writes:

“In March, in an amendment introduced by [Senator Tom] Coburn, the Senate’s budget stipulated that political-science research should not be funded unless it has an impact on the country’s economy or security, which may have a chilling effect on the National Science Foundation program to fund political-science research. Research defenders don’t deny the existence of waste in science, but they caution that today’s silly-sounding work can be tomorrow’s breakthrough. An economic study into the matching of college roommates produced an algorithm that has made kidney-transplant systems more efficient, while a project to build a ‘family tree’ of Web links by Stanford graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin turned into Google.”

China, on the other hand, isn’t suffering from the anti-scientific sentiment found in Congress. Gray reports:

“As the U.S. retrenches, China is doing the opposite. Last year, the Chinese government significantly increased spending on basic research. On the basis of the most recent data from the National Science Foundation, China’s combined public-private spending on R&D is rising at a clip of 20% each year. The U.S.’s is growing by 5%. Says technology policy expert Robert Atkinson, ‘We are simply making a choice to fund retirement homes instead of research laboratories.’ When the government cuts research funding, basic-research projects get slammed.”

Fortunately for the Institute for Advanced Study, its survival is assured by an endowment that has grown to $650 million. That is also fortunate for American citizens and the rest of the world. Gray explains:

“Basic science can take decades to pay off — but it has also provided some of history’s most important discoveries. The World Wide Web was invented as a better way for particle physicists to communicate, magnetic resonance imaging was discovered in the 1940s by physicists who were trying to understand if a nucleus had spin, and GPS resulted from the atomic clocks developed to test Einstein’s theory of relativity. ‘I don’t believe in these cases that you would have gotten where you wanted to go by thinking of the application first,’ says Marc Kastner, dean of MIT’s school of science. ‘The [science] community will survive,’ he says, ‘but there will be less of these game-changing discoveries — at least in this country.'”

Even DARPA, which has been the champion of basic scientific research, took a noticeable turn towards more applied technology research during the George W. Bush administration. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar believes “the Pentagon’s research arm can best serve the military and the nation by focusing less on current challenges and returning to its traditional mission.” [“DARPA to Shift Away from Applied Battlefield Tech,” by Joseph Marks, NextGov, 12 October 2012] DARPA’s decision, however, runs counter to trends happening elsewhere in research and development.


So-called “pure science” researchers have no beef with applied science researchers they simply don’t believe that you should begin scientific inquiry with an application in mind. They believe that applications will flow from research results. Gray provides an anecdotal example that involves a former Institute researcher and Microsoft.

“In 1997, Microsoft turned to Jennifer Chayes, then a member at the institute, to spearhead new research groups. Chayes told Bill Gates he was crazy; the results wouldn’t pay off for 100 years. Gates told Chayes, ‘Don’t worry.’ Sixteen years later, Chayes has lured pure mathematicians, theoretical computer scientists and economists to labs in New York and Cambridge. ‘You don’t tell them what they should work on. You don’t tell them because it would be a crime,’ says Chayes. ‘You inspire them by letting them know about things going on in the real world, and then you look at output of the research, and you ask, Is there something here that can improve the products that we have or some IT that we should patent?'”

The International Council for Science (ICSU) defines basic scientific research “as fundamental theoretical or experimental investigative research to advance knowledge without a specifically envisaged or immediately practical application. It is the quest for new knowledge and the exploration of the unknown. As such, basic science is sometimes naively perceived as an unnecessary luxury that can simply be replaced by applied research to more directly address immediate needs.” [“The value of basic scientific research,” 2004] The Council notes that there is no clear dividing line between basic and applied research even though the distinction needs to be made. The Council concludes: “As the move towards a global knowledge economy accelerates, the necessity of having a thriving scientific community to generate new knowledge and to exploit it, both in the academic world and industry, becomes irrefutable.” I agree with that, which is why I helped establish the non-profit organization The Project for STEM Competitiveness to help excite young students about science, technology, engineering, and math subjects and encourage them to pursue careers in those fields.


The U.S. would do well to remind itself that basic scientific research was one of the reasons that the twentieth century was the American Century. Not everyone has forgotten this lesson. Recently, “the second annual Golden Goose Awards were presented … in recognition of those whose work demonstrated ‘the unpredictable nature of basic scientific research and the fact that some of the most important scientific discoveries come from federally funded research that may once have been viewed as unusual, odd or without practical application.'” [“2013 Golden Goose Award Recipients Exemplify Value of Basic Scientific Research,” Committee on Science, Space, & Technology, 23 September 2013] While it is important for America to reduce its budget deficit and get spending under control, we should ensure that we don’t kill the golden goose along the way.

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