Thursday, October 29, 2015

What is basic science and what is it good for?

Basic science is, above all, a stupid word. It sounds like those onions we sliced in 8th grade. And if people don’t mistake “basic” for “everybody knows,” they might think instead it means “foundational,” that is, dedicated to questioning the present paradigms. But that’s not what the word refers to.

Basic science refers to research which is not pursued with the aim of producing new technologies; it is sometimes, more aptly, referred to as “curiosity driven” or “blue skies” research. The NSF calls it “transformative,” the ERC calls it “frontier” research. Quite possibly they don’t mean exactly the same, which is another reason why it’s a stupid word.

A few days ago, Matt Ridley wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal in which he argues that basic research, to the extent that it’s necessary at all, doesn’t need governmental funding. He believes that it is technology that drives science, not the other way round. “Deep scientific insights are the fruits that fall from the tree of technological change,” Ridley concludes. Apparently he has written a whole book with this theme, which is about to be published next week. The WSJ piece strikes me as shallow and deliberately provocative, published with the only aim of drawing attention to his book, which I hope has more substance and not just more words.

The essence of the article seems to be that it’s hard to demonstrate a correlation, not to mention causation, between tax-funded basic science and economic growth. Instead, Ridley argues, in many examples scientific innovations originated not in one single place, but more or less simultaneously in various different places. He concludes that tax-funded research is unnecessary.

Leaving aside for a moment that measures for economic growth can mislead about a countries’ prosperity, it is hardly surprising that a link between tax-funded basic research and economic growth is difficult to find. It must come as a shock to nationalists, but basic research is the possibly most international profession in existence. Ideas don’t stop at country borders. Consequently, to make use of basic research, you don’t yourself need to finance it. You can just wait until a breakthrough occurs elsewhere and then pay your people to jump on it. The main reason we so frequently see examples of simultaneous breakthroughs in different groups is that they build on more or less the same knowledge. Scientists can jump very quickly.

But the conclusion that this means one does not need to support basic research is just wrong. It’s a classic demonstration of the “free rider” problem. Your country can reap the benefits of basic research elsewhere, as long as somebody else does the thinking for you. But if every country does this, innovation would run dry, eventually.

Besides this, the idea that technology drives science might have worked in the last century but it does no longer work today. The times where you could find new laws of nature by dabbling with some equipment in the lab are over. To make breakthroughs today, you need to know what to build, and you need to know how to analyze your data. Where will you get that knowledge if not from basic resarch?

The technologies we use today, the computer that you sit in front of – semiconductors, lasers, liquid crystal displays – are based on last century’s theories. We still reap the benefits. And we all do, regardless of whether our nation paid salary for one of quantum mechanics’ founding fathers. But if we want progress to continue in the next century, we have to go beyond that. You need basic research to find out which direction is promising, which is a good investment. Or otherwise, you’ll waste lots of time and money.

There is a longer discussion that one can have whether some types of basic research have any practical use at all. It is questionable, for example, that knowing about the accelerated expansion of the universe will ever lead to a better phone. In my perspective the materialistic focus is as depressing as meaningless. Sure, it would be nice if my damned phone battery wouldn’t die in the middle of a call, and, yeah, I want to live forever watching cat videos on my hoverboard. But I fail to see what it’s ultimately good for. The only meaning I can find in being thrown into this universe is to understand how it works and how we are part of it. To me, knowledge is an end unto itself. Keep your hoverboard, just tell me how to quantize gravity.

Here is a simple thought experiment. Consider all tax-funded basic research were to cease tomorrow. What would go missing? No more stories about black holes, exoplanets, or loophole-free tests of quantum entanglement. No more string theory, no multiverses, no theories of everything, no higgsinos, no dark matter, no cosmic neutrinos, extra-dimensions, wormholes, or holographic universes. Except for a handful of lucky survivors at partly privately funded places – like Perimeter Institute, the KAVLI institutes, and some Templeton-funded initiatives, who in no way would be able to continue all of this research – all this research would die quickly. The world would be a poorer place, one with no hope of ever understanding this amazing universe that we live in.

Democracy is a funny thing, you know, it’s kind of like an opinion poll. Basic research is tax-funded in all developed countries. Could there be any clearer expression of the people’s opinion? They say: we want to know. We want to know where we come from, and what we are made of, and what’s the fate of our universe. Yes, they say, we are willing to pay taxes for that, but please tell us. As someone who works in basic research, I see my task as delivering to this want.


  1. In fact, one can make the argument that applied research should not be funded by public money. If the economy benefits, then the economy should pay. These neoliberal bozos are the same who argue that students should pay for university because the students benefit. (Even if this were always the case, the argument doesn't hold water). By the own argument, then, if business benefit from some applied research, business should fund it.

    This is a frequent topic on Peter Coles's blog.

  2. A small South American alluvial diamond mine's engineer retired. His young replacement inherited a problem. Density in part sorts diamond from gravel. A dense, hard, grey metal pebble sometimes appeared, damaging equipment. Decades accumulated a few hundred kg. The new guy offered to load the truck, take the pile into town, and garbage it. He was never seen again.

    A sure thing diamond mine can overlook 20 liters of native platiniridium alloy. Diamonds are everywhere. In principle they rapidly grow from solution at room pressure, like rock candy. That is foolish basic research (until you imagine the solvent).

  3. "Consider all tax-funded basic research were to cease tomorrow. What would go missing?". well, to start with, academicians using taxpayer dollars to work (or have their graduate students and post docs) on subjects (and of course, to attend conferences) of no conceivable relevance to the taxpayer.

    "Basic research is tax-funded in all developed countries. Could there be any clearer expression of the people’s opinion?" this is a utterly absurd statement. people pay taxes becuase of the penalty for not paying taxes. If you want to know if people want to fund basic research, set up a fund for basic research to which individuals can contribute (maybe a kickstarter project).

    and for comparision, set up funds for people to contribute to various applied research projects (e.g. the cause -and cure - of cancer or of Alzheimer's) to see what basic research people want to fund.

  4. naivetheorist:

    If you believe that "people pay taxes because of the penalty for not paying taxes", why is there a penalty for not paying taxes? The idea that there is a difference between "the government" and "us" only makes sense if you think that your democracy is broken. And if this is so, then the problem isn't the taxes but that you don't fix your democracy even tough it would be in your power. I'm pretty sick and tired of people complaining about "the government". In a democracy "the government" is you. Best,


  5. Oh, and about the kickstarter idea. Please go and look up the difference between representative democracy and grassroots democracy, think a bit about why we have representative democracies in literally all developed countries (with the exception of Switzerland, which is a tiny country and an outlier for many reasons, most of which historical), and then read this.

  6. sabine:
    there is a penalty for hot paying taxes becuase the governent wants use to take our money to fund what they want to do. isn't that obvious? the government is me? the government decided to invade Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam. i sure didn't want them to. i understand democracy, both direct and representative. and i also understand Libertarianism. Ridley is a libertarian which is the basis for his views which you apparently don't not agree with. my own country, the U.S. is not a direct democracy. it's mostly a representative democracy, at least if you're a white adult male without a criminal record. until recently (and in some cases even today) it does not represent blacks or women or even some of the young people who fight the wars the government wages using the money they takefrom you either through taxes or by printing money and running up a debt. Do you really think the citizens would rather fund theoretical physics (or space travel) than fund research in the biomedical field?

  7. i just read the reference you mentioned and yes, "the general public is dumb". i live in a country where 46% beleive in creationism and reject evolution. can't get much dunber than that (except maybe those who are developing untestasble 'scientific' theories)

  8. "He argues that there is still no empirical demonstration of the need for public funding of research and that the historical record suggests the opposite."

    So, you point to evidence: the engineers at Bell were lost without Bardeen, the scaling of IC production through the munificence of them missile program, TCPIP, HTTP, Google's leasing their patent from Stanford...

    "Given that government has funded science munificently from its huge tax take, it would be odd if it had not found out something. This tells us nothing about what would have been discovered by alternative funding arrangements."

    argument style:
    1) I claim the historical record suggests negClaim the opposite of your favorite claim
    2) You point to the historical record to support claim
    3) Ah, but that is only because the historical record doesn't tell us what would happen if negClaim were true
    4) By the way, my negClaim anthropomorphises and reifies Technological progress into something called Technium, which just, sort of, happens.

    My god, this is like reading some scholastic metaphysician's argument for witch drowning. To think this tripe was written by a member of the House of Lords. No, wait, that makes perfect sense, actually.

  9. naivetheorist:

    No, the general public is not dumb. The general public (which you and I are part of) has conflicting interests and representative democracy is the way to solve these conflicts. Of course they preferably want to see funding in the life sciences, and that's why there is so much funding in the life sciences... But you also have to take into account that throwing money at a problem only does so much to solving it and at some point you're just likely to waste your money. Nobody wants that. Besides that, most people know that pretty much none of the technologies that are used today for imaging in medicine would exist without basic research in physics.

    What happens if you use direct democracy to make such decisions is that people do not take into account all the information they have available. They don't have, individually, any basis on which to reliably judge whether they are making a good investment.

    "the government is me? the government decided to invade Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam. i sure didn't want them to. i understand democracy"

    As they say, democracy is great as long as everybody agrees with you... Do I guess from this correctly that you are US American? I actually think your democracy *is* broken, which probably explains the dissonance I sense.

    But to come back to the topic - I understand Ridley is pushing towards liberalism. In a sense, that's fine by me, he has his opinion and he is trying to convince people he is correct, that's how it should be. He is also wrong though, there are some problems that a free market economy just doesn't solve. Education and infrastructure are two of them, very long-term investments - and I am thinking thousands of years - are another. If you leave it to the market, the "here and now" has too big a weight. Best,


  10. " the government is me? the government decided to invade Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam. i sure didn't want them to. i understand democracy, both direct and representative."

    If you think it is strange that in a democracy there are no minority opinions (i.e. the decision of the government is not the one you would have made), then you most certainly do not understand representative democracy.

  11. "we have representative democracies in literally all developed countries (with the exception of Switzerland, which is a tiny country and an outlier for many reasons, most of which historical"

    Most countries have a mixture of direct and representative democracy, including Switzerland. Different countries have different amounts of each. Switzerland has more direct democracy than most. Yes, it is an outlier in many respects, but with respect to democracy as well as other things, it is a difference of degree, not of kind.

  12. Phillip,

    Yes, you are right, I was grossly oversimplifying matters.

  13. "The only meaning I can find in being thrown into this universe is to understand how it works and how we are part of it. To me, knowledge is an end unto itself. Keep your hoverboard, just tell me how to quantize gravity."

    Very good article, but those sentences above I want to print out and nail to my office door. Or maybe put on a T-shirt. Sure, science sometimes produces nice toys, and once in a while even kinda useful stuff. But that's not why we do it, and trying to reduce science to its pragmatic spin-off technologies and the like is like arguing that one should have sex only to produce babies, or climb mountains only to erect a cell-phone antenna at the top.

    One of the best parts of being human is getting to do things not just for their pragmatic ends, but for their own sake. We can leave mere procreation, feeding solely for calories, and the like to the rest of the animal kingdom.

  14. sabine:
    i assume you mean that Ridley is pushing towards 'classical liberalism', i.e. libertarianism, not modern liberalism which we americans call progressivism (re-distributionism). but i'm not part of the 'general public' (we don't even have a 'general public' in America - ask most any American black ) - i am a member of the theoretical soft matter physics community, the professorial community, the disabled community. Is American democracy broken? perhaps, but more likely, it means that democracy is an inherently flawed politically system, though in the words of Churchill "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.", and it's hard to know for sure until we actually try it some time - its aways a good idea to test a theory before declaring it useful or not and if that's not possible then it's probably not of value. btw- your blog is great. i go to the Not Even Wrong blog for the links it provides but i go to your blog for the deep analysis of papers that you provide.
    richard (naivetheorist is my nom de plume, used in homage to my colleague, P.-G. deGennes, winner of the 1991 Nobel Physics Prize, where he was referred to as "the Isaac Newton of our time" and much like Einstein in his pre-unified theory work, always closely linked the theories he developed to experimental tests of those theories.

  15. Sadly, I actually agree that democracy is inherently flawed and broken. We could need something better... Thanks for the kind words about my blog. Best,

  16. What would something better look like?

    Of course, many things called democratic actually are not. Assuming democracy is properly implemented, what could be better?

    Literally, democracy is rule by the people. In enlightened practice, the majority decision should hold only if it is necessary to make a decision in the first place. So, in an enlightened democracy, the majority could not rule that everyone has to wear yellow trousers on Thursdays, because there is no reason to decide such a question at all. In the last couple of centuries, people have learned that more and more things don't need to be decided by majority (i.e. regulated by law) at all. For example, laws against various forms of sexual expression have mostly been repealed in enlightened societies.

  17. The masses cannot imagine creating that which has no words - yet. 1960s' high school had shop - wood, ceramic, electric, metal, printing. At least we know about worded stuff and things. A 21st century high school diploma is a vacuum tube containing Rights.

    The Earth cannot sustain its current population, not nearly, as it explosively invasively grows as a Right. Spiderwebs of miracles and wonders appear without apparent effort. Science, itself corrupted by Rights, now whores to the mob.

    "if-you-re-nonwhite-and-uneducated" you are everyman demanding authority without responsibility, liability or even effort. Rights! Drink fast and deep, Sweet Pea, for the glass will not refill of its own. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Juvenal). Entropy.

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  19. First of all: thank you for the article, I second your view.
    I would add, that support of Basic Research (whether it's a stupid word or not) is not only a 'free rider problem'. Without Basic Research the ideas, the open mind and curiosity to jump on chances opened by the researc done elsewhere will dwindle.
    I'm confident, that most people value Basic Research enough to accept public support of it. The problems of some groups mainly in the US with this correlates with their low understanding of science - these are not the groups which drive progress anyway.
    But I don't agree to your remark "Sadly, I actually agree that democracy is inherently flawed and broken. We could need something better...". Surely, everybody now and then is dissatisfied with some democratic decisions. Also the lacking progress and tackling of urgent problems is frustrating. But this does not justify this general criticism of democracy as such. If you refer to specific (democratic) systems - yes, that hould always be up to discussion and improvement. I don't see any alternative to democracy as such.
    The problem is rather, that it does not suffice to have some democratic laws. Society needs more to prosper - legally, and more than that in the mindset, common sense and respective behavior of all it's members. This can sadly be recognized from the desasters occuring in many countries. Unfortunately, no country is completely immune to adverse political developments, even if these are superficially democratic.

  20. I think that you are shortchanging the utility of "basic research" as it pertains to physics. It doesn't help that the only immediately relevant fields to today's open questions seem to be astronomy. On the contrary, more accurate models of fundamental forces may help us develop better models of materials, and inspire investigations into certain phenomena of materials. Researchers are already exploring materials that exploit quantum entanglement to solve computational problems. I don't see why we might not discover and invent materials and devices based on insights stemming from basic physics research. The investment takes a long time to mature, but they do mature and have delightful returns.

  21. >> To me, knowledge is an end unto itself.

    Yes, but what kind of knowledge? You seem to imply science = knowledge. What about music, philosophy, art, and yes, even religion? Do they constitute knowledge? If yes, should the state also support them?

    It is socially naive to not realize that science is supported to the extent it is not only because of economic growth but for military purposes as well. The support of science has always been about technology. Hell, even Kepler did his thing to cast better birth charts for his customers.

    Since this is the fact, the question of return on investment will not go away. Perhaps in physics there is good bang for the buck. I work in a biomedical field and billions are thrown at disease with very little return. I can tell you why. Because biomedical research doesn't use the mathematical deductive method that physics uses. However, its built up a giant infrastructure that has its own inertia, political lobbies, etc. In this instance, insisting on an ROI is a good thing.

    Finally, knowledge for knowledge's sake is vacuous. What is the point? So you can sit around and feel good? What is the knowledge for? The best answer I have ever seen to this question comes from one of your own. Erwin Schrödinger said this:

    “The isolated knowledge obtained by a group of specialists in a narrow field has in itself no value whatsoever, but only in its synthesis with all the rest of knowledge and only inasmuch as it really contributes in this synthesis something toward answering the demand; who are we?”

    Science and Humanism, 1952

    Until it comes to this, everyone is just spinning their wheels.

    Thank you,


  22. Don,

    When I say knowledge, I mean knowledge about the world - this should be clear if you read the context of the sentence you have picked. Sure, there is knowledge about music, art, and religion. Yes, it is relevant to understand religion to understand people. No, religion is not itself a form of knowledge. I didn't say that knowledge is the only thing that anybody should care about.

    "Finally, knowledge for knowledge's sake is vacuous. What is the point? So you can sit around and feel good?"

    Exactly that's the point. I believe that knowledge is essential for "feeling good". What do you think is the point of the new iPhone?

    As to Schroedinger. Indeed, knowledge that isn't shared is of little value. I wouldn't say it's of no value, but if you reread my last paragraph, you will find the same sentiment.



  23. Good post. Of course he is very wrong in any number of ways (e.g. there is a crisis in technology just the same as here in physics and a lot of places). But that's not the most interesting thing about this. If you look at any one statement he makes, it is true! It's true within a bounds.
    It's therefore possible to make those statements and for every statement to be true, and yet for the whole piece to be completely false. This is because each statement, true up to a point, then happens to 'meet' or 'merge' with the exact same true statement for theoretical science. It's true it does. The statements are true of theoretical science.
    He's being a twit IMHO for doing this because it confuses things even more than they are. The reason he thinks he can is because theoretical science is now on the verge of coming under attack from forces that have it within themselves to muster the power to overturn the way things are.
    Note FXQi just announced that with their new large grant the recipient team has to accept leadership from FXQi and its STAFF in terms of research directions and management.
    This is the writing on the wall for what the future holds if the current crisis in theoretical science does not abate.

  24. @Sabine,
    You forget to mention an important argument. “Basic science for everyone” is only possible when all the participants can communicate with each other. When there is no global scientific frame of references – created by public money – there is no “basic science”. Just because independent theoretical researchers – I am one – do “their job” for themselves. So I can develop all kind of mathematical models and give these models all kind of names. It don’t disturb the progress of my research. But when I read your article “Are Space and Time Discrete or Continuous?” I have to admit that it is useless to inform you about the underlying reality of this subject. You need a mutual scientific frame of reference to facilitate successful communication.

  25. @Grimm: There is a universal frame of reference, namely respected journals in the field. Publish your stuff there.

  26. "Besides this, the idea that technology drives science might have worked in the last century but it does no longer work today. The times where you could find new laws of nature by dabbling with some equipment in the lab are over."

    I think that must have been TWO centuries ago.

    Otherwise, agree completely, and thanks for this well-expressed defense of "basic" science.


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