Should the public funding of basic science stop?

I have commented favourably on Matt Ridley’s work a few times (for example, here, and here). He is an entertaining writer, well-read and wide-ranging. He wrote a typically engaging piece in the Wall Street Journal a week or so ago, and when I had finished it I had an unexpected reaction: I just didn’t agree with him. His essay is called ‘The Myth of Basic Science’, and its general argument is that the old linear model of technological development — that basic research leads to applied research, which leads to commercial applications, which lead to technological development — is flawed beyond repair. It follows that we do not need to fund basic research from taxation.

Technological development, he argues, is self-perpetuating. It has become ‘a spontaneous phenomenon’. Here is what I think is the core of the argument:

To the science writer Kevin Kelly, the “technium”—his name for the evolving organism that our collective machinery comprises—is already “a very complex organism that often follows its own urges.” It “wants what every living system wants: to perpetuate itself.” By 2010, the Internet had roughly as many hyperlinks as the brain has synapses. Today, a significant proportion of the whispering in the cybersphere originates in programs—for monitoring, algorithmic financial trading and other purposes—rather than in people. It is already virtually impossible to turn the Internet off. The implications of this new way of seeing technology—as an autonomous, evolving entity that continues to progress whoever is in charge—are startling. People are pawns in a process. We ride rather than drive the innovation wave. Technology will find its inventors, rather than vice versa. 

He has some neat examples of this process from the past, in both technology and science: [Kelly offers]  six different inventors of the thermometer, three of the hypodermic needle, four of vaccination, five of the electric telegraph, four of photography, five of the steamboat, six of the electric railroad. The history of inventions, writes the historian Alfred Kroeber, is “one endless chain of parallel instances.”

It follows that if there is no stopping technology, perhaps there is no steering it either. In Mr. Kelly’s words, “the technium wants what evolution began.” Technological change is a far more spontaneous phenomenon than we realize. Out with the heroic, revolutionary story of the inventor, in with the inexorable, incremental, inevitable creep of innovation. Simultaneous discovery and invention mean that both patents and Nobel Prizes are fundamentally unfair things. 

Kevin Kelly appears in each of these three extracts, and it is plain to me that Matt Ridley agrees with him. I haven’t read Kelly, but I know that his interest is in cybernetics and in systems approaches to everything. Perhaps he’s right, but I have my reservations. It’s all a bit like Gaia, though in electronic form, and offers the prospect of technology’s taking over — rather in the fashion of Hal 9000, the spaceship computer in Kubrick’s ‘2000 — A space odyssey’, with his chilling ‘Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that’.

But let that pass. Even if I agree that inventions come when they are ready to come, rather than because a single inventor’s genius was at work, it doesn’t follow that basic research was unnecessary, or not a part of the process, or that public funding is not required for some of it at least. Ridley’s article drew 800 comments, most of them critical, and stimulated others to write equally lengthy rejoinders (for example, this one). Above and beyond general intellectual engagement in these comments was the fear that someone in authority would take notice of Ridley’s argument, and reduce the public funding of basic science, or abandon it  altogether.

Ridley’s actual take on the funding question is a bit on the muddled side. Though his last sentence seems clear enough — Deep scientific insights are the fruits that fall from the tree of technological change — what precedes it is not so clear. Ridley uses yet another writer, Terence Kealey (a biochemist turned economist, who has written about the economics of public science funding), to argue this way: … the linear dogma so prevalent in the world of science and politics—that science drives innovation, which drives commerce—is mostly wrong. It misunderstands where innovation comes from. Indeed, it generally gets it backward.

When you examine the history of innovation, you find, again and again, that scientific breakthroughs are the effect, not the cause, of technological change. It is no accident that astronomy blossomed in the wake of the age of exploration. The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine. The discovery of the structure of DNA depended heavily on X-ray crystallography of biological molecules, a technique developed in the wool industry to try to improve textiles.

I’m not much persuaded. How do we know which is the chicken and which the egg? You could argue that the discovery of the basic physics underlying thermodynamics preceded the development of the steam engine, though it is true there was not any public funding involved there (or for much else in the 18th century, for that matter). I’m no great believer in the linear model, and said so (to considerable flak) in the 1980s. At the same time, virtually all our technologists today have gone through education and training in which scientific understanding of fundamental laws has been key to their skills. They were taught by people who undertook basic research at a high level, and their knowledge, which increases all the time, defines the water level, so to speak, in the tank of knowledge.

As that level rises, so do the possibilities for further technological development. To use an example thrown at me by medical scientists in the 1980s, had applied research and industry funding been the sole keys to polio, we would have state-of-the art iron lungs today. Pure research in another area provided the Salk and Sabine vaccines, and an end both to poliomyelitis and the iron lung. I see a kind of long-term partnership in all this, not the domination of one kind of activity over the other.

It’s easy to overdo the linear model, and easier still to demolish it. After twenty years or so of public funding for basic research, as chairman I could only produce one patent to satisfy a critical Minister, and had to argue for continued funding on other grounds. Ridley is right to point to the sheer size and scale of basic research and of technology — in Australia it is roughly four times larger than was the case in the early to mid 1980s. The ABS now defines it as an ‘industry’.

Public funding will continue because we don’t know, and would sensibly fear, all the consequences of not funding. I have my criticisms of what we are funding, especially in the ‘climate change’ domain, but that is another matter. If I were still advising the Minister today I would have some serious suggestions for change, but a reduction of funding would not be one of them. I am reminded of Frank Winfield Woolworth’s response to an advertising man who said he could save half of Woolworth’s advertising expenditure. ‘Ah,’ said the founder of the chain. ‘Which half?’


Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • aert driessen says:

    Thanks Don, a very thought-provoking essay with many threads. Here are my simple, maybe even naive, thoughts off the top of my head. That said, I’m basically with you. What you see, and is also generally regarded as basic research, is a process that I see as being driven essential by curiosity. That was the case in the Golden Years of the Enlightenment and I think, mostly carried out by people of ‘independent means’ or backed by personal sponsors. I don’t recall seeing that word (curiosity) in your piece. But we live in a different world now and I don’t think that anyone with an open-ended ‘wonder how’ or ‘wonder why’ question would have much chance of public funding. In that sense funding ‘basic research’ in, say, a cancer cure is a contradiction in terms because it implies an imposed direction. So what is ‘basic research’? In our current socio-political circumstance, I don’t know. Applied science is much easier to fathom. It follows in the slip stream of basic research when the latter has uncovered a new principle or law of the natural world. The Bureau of Mineral Resources embarked on a program of mapping the whole of Australia on a scale of 4 miles to the inch (1:250 000) on a grid system to encourage and facilitate the discovery of mineral resources. Was that basic research? Their successor Geoscience Australia have coined a very useful term — ‘pre-competitive’ and use that descriptor to provide national coverage of gravity, magnetic, and other data. Pre-competitive introduces notions of the public good. So where lies the boundary of public and private goods? Also, innovation has much to do with engineering rather than science. So I see many overlapping concepts and meanings of words. Keep up your good work.

    • Don says:

      Trouble is, virtually all good researchers are ‘curious’, at least in my experience. Your general comments seems most sensible to me. I might have added that I don’t see any amount of funding as being ‘right’. Government should say, ‘This is what we have for you. Spend it wisely’, and leave the funding bodies to do it as wisely as they can. But they’re preoccupied with ‘relevance’ and ‘priorities’, and not getting things wrong. Very conservative.

      • aert driessen says:

        Don, I see it much more as ‘manipulative’ than ‘conservative’. I think they used to refer to it as ‘mission-oriented’ science when the transition started in the 1970s, ‘mission’ referring to ‘industrial/commercial’ goals. That has now been partly hijacked by the political establishment and Climate research by CSIRO is a prime example of that.

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    What has been critical for progressing the Enlightenment has been the development of the Patent systems, with their formal recognition of intellectual property. This provides incentives for research, and of course many companies spend much effort in research, mostly applied but sometimes theoretical without any application in mind. That incentive has led to far more private effort being spent in research, particularly applied research. I think the need for public funding of research is now proportionally much less than was the case a century or more ago, because of that private contribution. It would seem that public funds should concentrate on the more “theoretical” research, leaving private funding for its development into commercially valuable applications.

    I know of a specific example in an Australian-developed approach to the treatment of cancer. This work was spawned from one of our Universities, and has been taken up vigorously by an Australian company formed for that purpose. This case demonstrates that useful transition from publicly funded to privately supported research and proving. Others will know of many other relevant examples.

    However, I can understand why there is pressure on an organisation such as the Australian CSIRO (publicly funded), that its research should seek to have practical application. That’s a challenge, but perhaps is it unreasonable for the funding authority to ask the supplicants to stretch their imaginations and consider what might arise from whatever they might discover?

  • JMO says:

    “The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine.”
    Yes I agree.
    In the 1st century AD, Hero of Alexander experimented with hollow spherical metals balls with two bent tubes on either side partially filled with water and heated over a fire. Lo behold – it spun!. He latter developed steam driven opening doors for his house!!
    He then had a meeting with the local Roman Governor/Prefect who dismissed his stream driven idea by reminding Hero they had slaves to open doors!
    Just imagine what would have happened had the Roman Prefect had imagination, visionary ideas and advocated/encouraged/funded further development; the Romans would have had steam engines on rails deep into India by the 3rd century, if not before. Today’s world would have been so different. Instead we got the dark ages for nearly a thousand years
    (Also, I doubt the climate would have changed much at all – however particulate pollution (ie real pollution) not an invisible, odourless, tasteless gas plant fertiliser alleged pollutant) would have increased.
    Anyway, the last time I checked the Romans (and Hero himself for that matter) did not know about Thermodynamic Physics.

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