Forward To The Future?

Back in the ’70′s, I took a college course in cell biology.  That was about how cells were organized, how they metabolized nutrients, etc.  At the time, it was known as the field in biology that was “pure research,” that is, if you were working in it, you were doing research for the sake of doing research.  More properly known as “basic research,” it was seeking to answer the questions about “what makes cells work.”  What could you do with it?  No idea.  Which is why it drew a lot of negative press and attention from various conservatives when they wanted to make a point about “wasteful government spending.”    “Why should the government be spending money for someone to do something esoteric that had no practical purpose?” they asked.

Jump forward to today.  There are multi-billion dollar industries built around that science.  Everything from pharmaceuticals to making fuel.  Diseases that were once “untreatable” are now curable, or at least no longer death sentences.  The money that the government “wasted” back then has since paid huge dividends in taxes received.

The idea that basic science spending is “wasteful” is because some think that everything should have an immediately obvious practical purpose.  That side of science is called “applied research,” or “what can we do with this?”  What is missed is that you have to know what “this” is first.   Applied research relies on basic research to find things that might be made useful, which is not always obvious until the basic research is done.    Which is why you don’t see a lot of businesses doing it.  Quite simply “research for research’s sake” is very hard to justify to stockholders.    You can’t go to them and say “I’d like to see what’s going on in a cancer cell,” but you can go and say “This pathway in this type of cancer offers a drug target, and large returns from sales of that drug.”  But you first have to know that the pathway exists.

Which is where government funding comes in.  It’s the principal resource which funds that basic research.  It’s easy to attack it as “a waste of money.”  Conservatives like to do so on a regular basis.

Awesome. Moore is spewing an antiscience talking point that is not just wrong, it is precisely wrong. As Kopplin points out, the return on investment when you spend money on science is very high, higher even then the interest we pay on debt. Not investing in science is the dumb move.

This antiscience meme Moore parrots is tried and true; it’s a way for the far right (in this case in the form of free market libertarianism) to mock science spending, as we saw recently in the entirely made-up foofooraw about grants for scientists to research the evolution duck penises. My friend and science writer Carl Zimmer sends that antiscience garbage to its very deserved watery fowl grave. [Update (Apr. 10, 2013 at 14:45 UTC): In a fun coincidence, today the web comic The Oatmeal makes this point as well, using the mantis shrimp.]

That’s why we (collectively) through our tax money fund research.  It’s because we can’t rely on private funding to do it, and it’s the “seed corn” for the businesses of the future.   For example,  a decade ago, we thought we knew the forms of carbon.  We thought we understood its chemistry pretty well.  Then came a discovery in 2004:   A new form of carbon, graphene.  The researchers won the Nobel Prize for it.  So?  Well today, there’s a huge amount being poured into “what can we do with it,” and its potential is astounding.  But first they had to discover that it existed!  That’s just one example, there are many others.  Nanoparticles are the next big thing in pharmaceuticals, and they’re already being used in various products.

No, not all government funded research turns into something useful.  That’s the nature of research.  We used to say “If we knew the answers, it wouldn’t be research.”  It’s the search for answers, and sometimes the answer is “Well, that didn’t work!”  Sometimes the knowledge gained doesn’t turn out to be “useful” until decades later, when other discoveries come along that in combination make it “relevant.”   But we don’t know what or when it may turn out that way, or if it will be just another item in the list of “things we know.”

Conservatives have been attacking science funding for a long time.  They want to substitute religion for science education, cut social science studies, and have Congress set the criteria on grants, instead of scientists.  After all, it “isn’t useful,” it’s “wasteful,” and we need to “cut spending.”  We “don’t need to know that,” is their operative mentality.  The end result is that our pool of knowledge, the discoveries that will create the businesses of the future, will not grow.  They think of the past, and “now,” not the future.

It’s shortsighted, and truly dumb.  The reason I know that?  Not just because I’ve been a scientist.  It’s because almost 40 years ago I sat in a classroom with a fairly thin textbook, studying a subject with no practical purpose.  Today?  That book would be a part of a chapter,  I could major in the subject, and be guaranteed a job on graduation if I did.  I’m using technology to write and publish this that resulted from what back then was just “wasteful spending on physics research.”  In field after field, I’ve seen it and in the things I use daily.  I can look at the Fortune 500 list, and remember how conservatives were against the government spending on science that those companies rely on for their products, or even started on.  It has been the best return on investment, and it’s what has made us the country we are despite all the conservatives saying it was … wasteful spending.

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Filed under Politics, Science

8 responses to “Forward To The Future?

  1. Nicely defended Norbrook

    • Thanks! It’s been one of my long-standing gripes with conservatives. They want everything to be “obvious,” “practical,” or “immediately useful,” in which case they can then say “well, private industry (funding) could do it,” forgetting that private industry – or foundations – really can’t do it.

      There’s no “practical” reason we send probes to Saturn or Mars, but we don’t know until we’ve done it if there’s something discovered that might be practical developed from that knowledge.

      • Vic78

        We could be able to figure out interstellar travel by sending probes. What do I know.

  2. aquagranny911

    Great diary Norbrook!!! Just a little personal share. My hubby is a scientist who spent 20 years in the military & then another 25 years more as a civilian working in the field of biological research & related science.

    He has been reading lately about the Navy’s use of algae & other ocean based bio-fuels & crowing: “I worked on that project back in the late ’70′s! They are doing it, finally doing it! We always knew it would work!”

    It has been sort of a vindication for him that the research they did all those years ago is finally showing some real practical applications. I’m glad he lived to see that because there were times he did get discouraged, especially as a civilian worker when things got sidelined & funding got cut.

    Anyway, thanks for this diary. I did appreciate it.

    • You’re welcome. One of the things that people don’t understand is that sometimes you need “the tools to make the tools.” I used to work with a particular parasite, and while we could grow it, and see that compound X did or did not do something to it, we really didn’t know all that much about the biology of the parasite itself. We knew its life cycle, and that was pretty much it. It’s not because we didn’t want to know more, but many of the techniques … the “tools” … to examine those aspects simply didn’t exist. These days, they do, and a lot better capabilities in determining the best way to attack the parasite are now available. They didn’t happen to be developed for that purpose, but the technology for other things turns out to be useful there. But 30 years ago, they weren’t available.

    • Vic78

      That algae research has infinite possibilities. Oil and utility companies are on their way to being phased out. They have 20 years tops to profit the way they have been. I’d like to cut that in half.

      • aquagranny911

        My Hubby would totally agree with you on this. He’s retired now but reads all the time about science & real applications of things he worked on over the years. I don’t have a full grasp of all the science but he gets real excited about algae, lol.

        The thing he gets pissed about is that we could have been doing a lot of this 20 or more years ago but “politics & greed got in the way.”

        • Vic78

          Right now people are starting to get creative with algae. There are people making lamps with live algae. I feel good about our green future.