Saturday, May 11, 2013

Basic research is vital

Last month I had the flu. I was down with a fever of more than 40°C, four days in a row. Needless to say, it was a public holiday.

While the body is struggling to recover from illness, priorities shift. Survive first. Drink. Eat. Stand upright without fainting. Feed the kids because they can’t do it themselves. Two days earlier, I was thinking of running a half-marathon, now happy to make it to the bathroom. Forgotten the parking ticket and the tax return.

We see the same shift of priorities on other levels of our societies. If a system, may that be an organism or a group of people, experiences a potential threat to existence, energy is redirected to the essential needs, to survival first. An unexpected death in the family requires time for recovery and reorganization. A nation that is being attacked redirects resources to the military.

The human body’s defense against viruses does not require conscious control. It executes a program that millions of years of evolution have optimized, a program we can support with medication and nutrition. But when it comes to priorities of our nations, we have no program to follow. We first have to decide what is necessary for survival, and what can be put on hold while we recover.

The last years have not been good years economically, neither in the European Union, nor in North America. We all feel the pressure. We’re forced to focus our priorities. And every week I read a new article about cuts in some research budget.

“Europe's leaders slash proposed research budget,” I read. “Big cuts to R&D budgets [in the UK],” I read. “More than 50 Nobel laureates are urging [the US] Congress to spare the federal science establishment from the looming budget cut,” I read.

An organism befallen by illness manages a shortage of energy. A nation under economic pressure manages a shortage of money. But money is only the tool for the management. And it is a complicated tool, its value influenced by many factors including psychological, and it is not just under national management. In the end, its purpose is to direct labor. And here is the real energy of our nations: Humans, working. It is the amounts of working hours in different professions that budget cuts manage.

In reaction to a perceived threat, nations shift priorities and redirect human labor. They might aim at sustainability. At independence from oil imports. They invest in public health. Or they cut back on these investments. When the pressure raises, what is left will be the essentials. Energy and food, housing and safety. Decisions have to be made. The people who assemble weapons are not available to water the fields.

How vital is science?

We all know that progress depends on scientific research. Somebody has to develop new technologies. Somebody has to test whether they are safe to use. Everybody understands what applied science does: In goes brain, out comes what you’ll smear into your face or wear on your nose tomorrow.

But not everybody understands that this isn’t all of science. Besides the output-oriented research, there is the research that is not conducted with the aim of developing new technologies. It is curiosity-driven. It follows the loose ends of today's theories, it aims to understand the puzzle that is the data. Most scientists call it basic or fundamental research. The NSF calls it transformative research, the ERC frontier research. Sometimes I’ve heard the expression blue-skies research. Whatever the name, its defining property is that you don’t know the result before you’ve done the research.

Since many people do not understand what fundamental research is or why it is necessary, if science funding is cut, basic research suffers most. Politicians lack the proper words to justify investment into something that doesn’t seem to have any tangible outcome. Something that, it seems, just pleases the curiosity of academics. “The question is academic,” has to come to mean “The world doesn’t care about its answer.”

A truly shocking recent example comes from Canada:
“Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value," John McDougall, president of the [Canadian National Research Council], said in announcing the shift in the NRC's research focus away from discovery science solely to research the government deems "commercially viable". [Source: Toronto Sun] [Update: He didn't literally say this as the Sun quoted it, see here for the correct quote.]
Oh, Canada. (Also: Could somebody boot the guy, he’s in the wrong profession.)

Do they not understand how vital basic research is for their nation? Or do they decide not to raise the point? I suspect that at least some of those involved in such a decision approve cutting back on basic research not because they don’t understand what it’s good for, but because they believe their people don’t understand what it’s good for. (And they would be wrong, if you scroll down and look at the poll results...)

I suspect that scientists are an easy target, they usually don’t offer much resistance. They're not organized, for not to say disorganized. Scientists will try to cope until it becomes impossible and then pack their bags and their families and move to elsewhere. And once they’re gone, Canada, you’ll have to invest much more money than you save now to get them back.

Do they really not know that basic research, in one sentence, is the applied research in 100 years?

It isn’t possible, in basic research, to formulate a commercial application as goal because nobody can make predictions or formulate research plans over 100 years. There are too many unknown unknowns, the system is too complex, there are too many independent knowledge seekers in the game. Nobody can tell reliably what is going to happen.

They say “commercially viable”, but what they actually mean is “commercially viable within 5 years”.

The scientific theories that modern technology and medicine are based on – from LCD displays over DVD-players to spectroscopy and magnetic resonance imaging, from laser surgery to quantum computers – none of them would exist had scientists pursued “commercial viability”. Without curiosity-driven research, we deliberately ignore paths to new areas of knowledge. Applied research will inevitably run dry sooner or later. Scientific progress is not sustainable without basic research.

As your mother told you, if you have a fever, watch your fluid intake. Even if you are tired and don’t feel like moving a finger, drink that glass of water. The woman with the flu who didn’t drink enough today is the woman in the hospital on an IV-drip tomorrow. And the nation under economic pressure who didn’t invest in basic research today is the nation that will wish there was a global IV-drop for their artery tomorrow.

And here’s some other people saying the same thing in less words [via Steve Hsu]:

I know that on this blog a post like this preaches to the choir. So today I have homework for you. Tell your friends and your neighbors and the other parents at the daycare place. Tell them what basic research is and why it’s vital. And if you don’t feel like talking, send them a link or show them a video.


  1. These are horrible news about Canada. Will they give up experimental and theoretical fundamental physics in the same way as the US have done it already? What about their Perimeter Institute, will that be killed now :-/?

    I am so sick and tired of hearing about governements giving up on fundamental physics everywhere! I guess even if the scientists were better organized and tried to defend themself by say, stop their work completely if the governenements do not start to better appreciate and acknowledge fundamental physics, the people in charge and power would not even care ... For them fundamental science is just something they can easily and legitimatately dispense with :-(

    This is something that recently cheered me up a little bit: There will be a new theoretical physics Institut in Hamburg

    Unfurtunately the article is in German ...

    And still get well soon Bee ;-)

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  3. "Unfurtunately the article is in German" Google Translate. Hire HR ballistic rejects, den mothers keep them fed and washed, get them bored; desirable futures appear.

    1) "This is not the solution we are seeking."
    2) "If there is no precedent, the idea must be wrong."
    3) "It contradicts accepted theory."

    If a levied penalty is less than profit in hand, it's a business plan. Management kills the future, for the perfect employee possesses no asset beyond loyalty. Government demands self-affirming pluralistic ignorance embedded within compulsory degradative egalitarianism (improved means to deteriorated ends, plus user fees).

    A cloud over solar farms, a gust or calm in wind farms wreak havoc with grids’ mechanical generators and demand allocations. Civilization drowns in pools of regrettable consequences whose catchments are being excavated at warp speed by rights affirmations of the congenitally inconsequential. Abandon the doomed. March, or everybody dies.

  4. Hi Nemo,

    What the Canadian government has announced by way of a policy shift is more than a little confusing to have understood. First to be fair it won’t spell the end to government monies being directed towards basic research, that is by way of what’s given to universities and its affiliates, so I don’t suspect it will affect things like PI; yet do fear it will affect future expansion in such direction. However, it is fair to say they plan to have the National Research Council no longer be an entity that either participates or decides on how or to whom such monies are assigned. For me this presents as a backdoor way for primarily non academics (politicians and bureaucrats) to have the most to say as what will and won’t be funded; which stands as the truly frightening aspect of this policy shift.

    What they plan to have happen is to transform the NRC, is to have it and all its resources become a for hire entity, to serve corporate product development research efforts. Ironically I find this counter to conservative thinking as well as economic policy, as having government decide what such presents by way of being winners and losers; that is rather than have pure market forces makes such decision.

    Despite this presenting as indeed troubling, in the end, that is respective to real outcome, I’m not all that concerned, as I think this being one time our federal government might have stepped into a hornets’ nest. That is despite what Bee and others might think the intellectual community in this country does often demonstrate to be both well organized and have sway in the shaping of public opinion. A fairly recent example of this is when our Toronto Major attempted to have library funding drastically cut, only to run into a fire storm lead by many of the intellectual community; which by the way, Canada enjoys having the highest per capita percentage citizenry group found being comprised of, as compared to all other nations.



  5. Hi Nemo,

    Well, PI is too fat to be killed easily, and it's backed up by substantial private funding, so I wouldn't worry. They'll certainly feel that the wind has changed though when it comes to grant proposals and governmental funding. Reading what I wrote 6 years ago, I sincerely believed Canada wouldn't make the same mistakes as the USA and the UK and to a lesser extent the whole rest of Europe.

    Re Hamburg: Sounds to me like it's just some infrastructure initiative, not a new institute where research is conducted. I mean, point me to a page with open positions, and I'll be the first to apply... Best,


  6. I have a friend who will hold up a piece of technology like a mobile phone and ask 'can you imagine how many PhDs are in this?' I'd actually be interested to know.

  7. Most companies and companies closely associated, signing on to some type of agreement, will have, or will fund their own research development.

    So abashment of the NRC toward commercially viable is definitely a proposal that goes toward "funding industry" at taxpayers expense.

    This seems to be the latest in a effort to not only muzzle scientists here in Canada but to close off research that is very important in my view toward the horizons of our knowledge, that must be extended.

    This is typical of "this type of government" being used to eliminated something societal driven, to support privatization. If society does not complain, it will just flow through.

    Canada weathered the economic troubling times much better then others because of the policies already contained within our banking systems with regard to the rules of borrowed money.

    Secondly, economic growth as an indicator has been slow which means that people are not entirely convinced that we are entirely confident to borrow or for banks to lend, as the news may indicate. They have tighten their belts.

    This didn't mean we paid less taxes. It did not mean that as a society we choose to cut that part of funding in order to support the objective goals defined as supported by that elected government. We'll have to see the response that will follow, if any? How apathetic have people become?



  8. Is Canada trying to out-dumb a certain neighbor to the south?

    Could it be too much intoxicating vapor from the hellish tar sands disaster?

    B. Dylan's answer: "Money doesn't talk - it swears.

  9. Yes, it appears that the "new institute" in Hamburg is just a formalization of existing cooperation between the university and DESY. There are many non-university research institutes in Germany, most associated with universities, or at least nearby (often in the same building, or at least on the same campus). The Zentrum für Astronomie in Heidelberg, for instance, is essentially just an umbrella for 3 of the four existing astronomy institutes (only the Max Planck Institute is not part of the new umbrella).

    Actually, this is usually a bad sign, not a good one. It can mean that institutes which were once viable on their own are no longer viable, and the only way to survive is to become part of something larger. Also, competitive funding might prefer larger institutes. And, on the PR front, if one of the original institutes is actually shut down, this isn't as noticeable as long as the umbrella survives. DESY used to do mainly basic research in experimental (and theoretical) particle physics, similar to and complementary to CERN, although there was always some applied research. Now, the emphasis has shifted to applied research.

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  11. The thing is that the world in recent years has become very competitive and the West is not what it’s used to be. Western countries at this point can’t spend big money and resources to non-profitable research that potentially could be beneficial in 100 years. They just can’t afford it anymore…

    Maybe LHC was the last of such “luxuries” they could afford.

    But don’t lose hope. Maybe you would like life in China:-)

  12. I've heard it said that thermodynamics came out of applied research on steam engines. If that is so, is applied research necessarily not basic?

  13. I'm not sure that basic research is essential for solving the major problems of the next 100 years. The major problems will be disease, climate change and energy. Disease is the only one which existing technology may not be up to, due to the mutation of germs. Climate change, assuming the worst, will require immigration and shift in agriculture - that, like energy, seems mainly a political problem - mainly, can we try to live more peacefully, and distribute wealth more evenly? Basic research is only essential for preventing one nation making an unexpected technological advance that will increase its military might over all others. So a different motivation for supporting basic research might be as one supports the arts - as a means of getting people to work together peacefully, and to spread knowledge. Hopefully basic researchers will not view themselves as an elite, but as servants of society.

    "We dedicate this book
    To our fellow citizens
    Who, for love of truth,
    Take from their own wants
    By taxes and gifts,
    And now and then send forth
    One of themselves as dedicated servant,
    To forward the search into the mysteries and marvelous simplicities
    Of this strange and beautiful Universe,
    Our home."

  14. Many people argue, that the basic research is important, because it streamlines the path for applied research. For what the basic research is, if the physicists ignore the cold fusion and magnetic motors findings for years? For what the basic finding is, if most of experiments and ideas are becoming obsolete a way before they can be used? In this way it becomes more and more evident, that the basic research is merely and employment program, rather than the way for future progress of human civilization. The fact the politicians and lawyers are vital for human society doesn't mean, we should accept the requirements of politicians and lawyer without critical public feedback. The research with practical applications should always have priority over abstract basic research.


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