What’s the use of science?

The so-called “High Quality Research Act” proposed by representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), wants research funded by the National Science Foundation to benefit the interests of the United States by advancing “national health, prosperity, or welfare” and securing “national defense by promoting the progress of science”. It also wants science to solve problems that are actually important to society while not duplicating research that has already been funded by NSF.   It may seem at first that this proposal by the Chair of the Science, Technology and Space Committee is a noble attempt to hold scientists to high standards and make sure that valuable taxpayer dollars are spent on useful research.  So what’s all this fuss about peer review?Peer review

The heart of the matter is this notion of what it means for science to be useful.  Mr. Smith singled out a few studies in the social and political sciences which had been funded after going through NSF’s highly competitive peer review process.  In other words, Mr. Smith was criticizing studies that had been evaluated by members of the scientific community and been deemed worth funding.  In so doing he was questioning the validity of those reviews.  This begs an obvious question – who should determine what’s worth funding? Should it be the scientific community itself, which presumably understands best the questions that are interesting and worth pursuing to advance the aims Mr. Smith has laid out in his proposal, or should there be some external evaluation of the utility of those pursuits?

So far, the scientific community has been largely self-determining its priorities. I say largely” because government policy of course dictates to some extent the broad general areas of interest, such as the emphasis on so-called STEM research (for better or worse, not to be confused with stem-cell research). But that’s not what’s being proposed here – Mr. Smith wants an external body having ultimate say over the merits of particular research projects. Introducing external political influence on this process has dangerous implications for a number of reasons.

NSF is the federal agency responsible for funding basic and fundamental scientific research in the United States.  It is not a special interest group.  Although Mr. Smith has begun by taking aim at specific disciplines, he wishes to set a precedent that would be applicable across all federal agencies – i.e. all federal funding of science.  Scientific research could all too easily then be made to serve the particular political will of those who get to decide what is valuable and what is not, although they (like Mr. Smith himself) may not have the slightest inkling or expertise about what is actually cutting-edge in any discipline. Worse, these decisions may be made not on the basis of social good or scientific progress, but rather whatever happens to be politically fashionable over short-term election cycles.

The Fallacy of Utility

There’s a greater, more fundamental issue here though which the American political system consistently fails to grasp about the very nature of science and innovation.  This is that Science DOES NOT EQUAL innovation.  Innovation and discovery are byproducts of the scientific endeavor.  And there is no expert on earth who can predict where the next big discovery will come from, no matter how well informed. And there is no intellect that can imagine what use such a discovery might be put to. I call this the Fallacy of Utility.

History is rife with examples of seemingly pointless curiosity-driven inquiries that yield surprisingly practical technologies.  One of my favorites is the discovery of GFP –  Green Fluorescent Protein.  Isolated from a humble and unassuming species of jellyfish, this harmless glowing protein has enabled biological research to advance by leaps and bounds by serving as a non-toxic marker for all sorts of laboratory experiments.

When Newton holed himself up in his bedroom one summer to uncover the laws of optics and macroscopic reality, imagine asking him – “Yes, but what’s the use of understanding how a rainbow is formed or why the sky is blue?”  Fortunately for Newton, he was independently wealthy and didn’t have to bother with such practical concerns.  Unfortunately for present-day scientists, this is no longer the case. Yet curiosity driven science – AKA “bluesky” research – today constantly finds itself on the defensive.

Finally, the larger issue at hand is the perpetual fiasco that is the federal budget.  With federal science funding already stretched so tightly that the US is already bleeding out a generation of young scientists for lack of research dollars and the jobs tied to those dollars, the implication that some career politician should have say in evaluating the merits research projects adds insult to injury. Let’s not be distracted from the main problem: the size of the pot, and the systemic failure of individuals and institutions to cope with it.

All told, this is nothing more than yet another attempt to tighten the noose stifling science and innovation in the United States.

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