What's in it for us? (Why spend public funds on basic research?)

My ScienceBlogs sibling Kevin Vranes asks an interesting question (and provides some useful facts for thinking about the answer):

Why do we even spend taxpayer money on basic science research? Is it to fund science for discovery's sake alone? Or to meet an array of identified societal needs?
The original post-WWII Vannevar Bush model was that the feds give money to the scientists for basic research, the scientists decide how to allocate that money, and society gets innumerable benefits, even if a direct link can't be made between individual projects and economic growth.
But it turns out that of all the American taxpayer cash spent on S&T R&D, only a small portion goes to the agencies engaged in basic science research. About 55% goes to defense R&D and 20% to NIH (see chart). The National Science Foundation, the flagship of basic research for the U.S. government, gets only 3% of all federal R&D funds.

The first thing to notice is that we taxpayers aren't spending all that much on basic research. So quit telling the guy down the street with the NSF grant that he's working for you. Most of what we're funding, based on these numbers, is the defense of our bodies by modern medicine and the military. (Yes, there's maybe some offense in the defense R&D.)
But the more interesting question, to my mind, is whether there are persuasive reasons for funding more basic research than we do -- or, for that matter, for funding it all all.

Now, people are of different minds about public funding (of anything) in the first place. Some people think that the government should provide (on the taxpayers' tab) only what is absolutely required (defense from foreign enemies, regular elections, maybe an interstate here or there) and leave evrything else to the individual. Other people are very comfortable having public monies fund excellent public schools, universal health care, grants to artists, and a pony for everyone. Most people are somewhere in the middle. And, when things get tight (say, after your dot-com bubble bursts, or when that little military thing you thought would be quick stretches out for a few years), and we can't fund all the things we might like to fund, we need to start looking at what really matters to us as a society.
It's easy to make the case that we need certain kinds of science to achieve certain ends that people (more or less) agree upon. Vaccine development is something most people think taxpayer money should fund -- it's bad if lots of us fall ill to a killer flu (for example). If there's an effective flu shot that most of us can't afford (because it was developed with private funds with the aim of making a big return for share-holders), we're not that much better off. Public funding here helps secure a good for the public, at a price the public can afford.
But this isn't "basic research". Why should a member of the public fund research without an immediate payoff -- some good or service the public will get at the conclusion of the project?
The standard answer here is usually that we have little idea which of the findings of basic research will yield practical applications. So, in funding basic research, we're really gambling on the discovery of lots of good stuff that really will be of practical benefit to the public.
I don't think that's the right way to answer the question, though. My gut feeling is this: We should fund basic research for the same reason that we fund museums and parks, for the same reason we fund grants to musicians and artists and academics. Strictly speaking, we could all survive without museums or parks. They're not necessities. But, they are a shared societal resource that makes life better in ways that are hard to break down into lines in a spreadsheet. We could get through a rough patch even if no new symphonies were composed or performed. Yet, somehow, making it possible for the struggling musicians to compose and perform them enriches us as a society.
Funding basic research helps us keep scientists engaged in the questions about the world that keep them up at night -- which maybe puts them in a better emotional place to be able to try to tackle the practical problems that we want them to tackle. It makes science a more attractive career option than it would be if basic research was off the table. Funding basic research is a way for society to value scientists as commission value artists.
Given that we don't really glamorize the struggling scientist in the same way we glamorize struggling artists, throwing the scientists a little cash to go after the deep questions might help keep them around, enriching our society rather than wandering off to some society that's more overt in its scientist-love.
And, the fact that some public money goes to fund basic scientific research makes it a little easier for a kid growing up here to imagine growing up to be a scientist. The careers that are completely dependent on market forces can look unattainable. But if, as a society, we think the work of the scientist is something worth paying for -- whether or not it solves some particular problem we have right now -- then maybe it's a line of work worth all the time and effort it takes to train for it.
I know that the possibility of choosing your own career path doesn't usually make the balance sheet, either, but it enriches us as a society, too. It makes life better for us, and maybe that's worth paying for.
Clearly, I'm not arguing that scientific research is somehow unique among all the things that a society could value, or support. Maybe there's a way that it is unique and I'm just not seeing it.
If so, please use the comments to set me straight!

Comments are off for this post

  • anonymous says:

    I disagree that we should justify basic research the same way we justify spending on the arts, public parks and things like that, for a pragmatic reason as well as for other reasons. First the pragmatic reason: I don't think most people believe society should fund the arts. I probably fall somewhere closer to that end of the spectrum than to the other, although I wouldn't make too big a deal of it. In other words, if we want to sell public funding of basic research, there is probably a better spiel.
    My other reasons tend toward the pragmatic as well. I think we really do get long-term, practical payoffs from basic research. There really are lots of things that seem totally impractical but that end up having tremendous impact. The payoff may be years in the future, but there are so many examples that it should be considered almost a given. There are certain types of "basic research" that might not have practical payoffs, at least not in the short or medium term. For example, space exploration. There may be very long-term payoffs -- it would be good for the human race to exist somewhere off this planet as well as on it, especially considering how we're treating it. But that's not a practical selling point because the payoff probably won't come for many generations, and, one hopes, perhaps never.
    A more philosophical reason is that I think basic research is an expression of human behavior that has evolved and survived because it is adaptive. I know that it could also potentially prove disasterous in its technological implementation, but it has served us reasonably well so far. OK, maybe the jury is out on that. But there are many benefits we enjoy today that are the result not necessarily of specific basic research, but of basic research in many areas that allowed some particular person in some particular place to make some particular breakthrough. Technology at our level relies on a vast infrastructure that we take for granted but that wouldn't exist without reserach that was done years, or even centuries ago, with little or no expectation of practical benefits.

  • RPM says:

    I do basic research. Does that make me an artist? Will I need to start wearing a funny hat?
    It seems like many other fields (outside of the sciences) would have similar justifications for public funding. You mention museums, parks, and art, but almost any research area outside of biomedicine and defense can make this argument (history, literature, sociology, etc). As an advocate for basic science research, it's good to see a new way of presenting our case. At least I know that if basic science funding dries up, I can always tie my research to biomedicine.

  • I was musing on this topic in a very different context the other day. I don't think we should neglect pointing out that general research leads to unforeseen payoffs, but I agree that there's something more to the argument in favor of furthering knowledge for its own sake. Historically we have, as a society, made the judgment that research, discovery and knowledge are of positive value, and there's a great deal in favor of that perspective. In the same way we instinctually feel the need to educate we should seek to do so more effectively. I'd say that it's a decision and value judgement society needs to revisit quite frequently.
    Perhaps we could rephrase it. Say that you could be certain that your research would be of no practical value, ever, would you still support it? Would you still study it? I would, and that spirit of inquisitiveness, while not necessarily the best argument for geeral research, is certainly one we should nurture.

  • anonymous says:

    There is a difference between encouraging the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, as opposed to research that can make a better appliance, but the issue here is how to justify spending public money on basic research. I think there is a legitimate argument to be made that public funding should not be used for anything that does not provide an objective public benefit, or at least the potential of an objective benefit. Fortunately, it would be hard to demonstrate that any line of research is of no practical value, given the history of research over the last few centuries. There are just too many examples of how useless research ended up being very useful once other research and technologies were in place.

  • Bill Hooker says:

    So quit telling the guy down the street with the NSF grant that he's working for you.
    Er, no. To the extent that he's spending public money, he does work for me; it makes no difference how much or how little he's getting. I'm a researcher, and I do work for the public. Bad things happen when researchers lose sight of that, not the least of which is an anti-intellectual backlash against "arrogant nerds in white coats".
    In re: "selling" basic research, I like your analogy with museums and art and so on, but I rather think that the general public would be more receptive to a financial argument. I've seen a number of studies indicating that, financially, the best thing you can do with a dollar is to invest it in basic scientific research, if you are willing to wait a hundred years for the return. I cannot, of course, find any of those studies right now, nor could I ever speak to their accuracy. But it occurs to me that a publicly-funded philosopher of science might be putting that funding to good use if she were to look into the question of long-term fiscal gains from basic research... 🙂

  • lambda says:

    What if as a member of said public, I don't want you to spend my money on basic research? What if I deny you moral justification and tell you that taking my money is simply theft no matter the reason? What rights do I retain in the face of the majority? Any? If a goal so nebulous as children growing up imagining themselves as scientists is justification, what isn't? As if bribing current and future scientists enable a deeper understanding of the world. Are they so shallow? Perhaps if I didn't spend almost half of my time working for the public good, my money enabling armies of bureaucrats who know what is best for me, paying the salaries of thousands of people asking questions like these, I would have time to enable a greater understanding of the natural world.

  • What if as a member of said public, I don't want you to spend my money on basic research? What if I deny you moral justification and tell you that taking my money is simply theft no matter the reason? What rights do I retain in the face of the majority?
    It would seem this would be a question and issue to take up with said bureaucrats. The responsibility to allocate particular tasks within the scientific community with the use of public funding belongs to the governmental body that distributes those funds. Your political choices remain the same as they do with any societal matter with which you disagree.
    The point of future scientists is not a matter of "bribery" or of indulging their desires for such a career, it's a choice that general research is itself a benefit to society and that it should be nurtured.

  • lambda says:

    Thank you for your thoughts on my response. It actually illustrates certain concerns very well. The last question from my post that you quoted was a question on rights retained in the face of a majority. Your immediate response being take it up with the bureaucrats.

  • No, the answer as always is to take up your rights as a member of society, just as we must do if we believe otherwise. Take up the issue with government, and take it up with the public. I'm obliged to do the same if I have issues with how my society functions or how my tax dollars are spent (which I often do). I hope that you are open to being convinced that your feelings on this issue are misplaced, but perhaps that's better left to the questions Janet asks in her next comment on this matter. If you do away with general research, then you in turn reduce that fraction of society that is devoted to scientific innovation, as not everyone studies on the cutting edge or knows where the cutting edge will be in 10 years. If you in turn reduce the openness of a scientific career, a certain segment of the well-educated population will entertain the idea of leaving for greener pastures, a subject discussed in a recent TIME Magazine article. I think your gut reaction to this topic is somewhat shortsighted in terms of a potential effect upon society and that you should give it more thought before taking up a "not with my hard-earned money" mentality.

  • lambda says:

    I am just going to touch on your response here before moving to the newer post related to basic research.
    I am taking up the issue with the public, right now actually. My point is a simply stated one, and you seem to be avoiding it. I will try and make it clear. Pretend there are five people on an island. Each lives on an equal portion farming food and works on their hut. One day, three of those people decide to take food from the other two, so they can spend time researching a raft. The two do not want to participate and are forced grow food by the three. Is this morally justified? Should we allow for the enslavement of a minority by the majority? Is your justification through description of an optimal future enough?
    Thank you for pointing out how shortsighted my �gut reaction� is. It is truly my goal to shut down the quest for knowledge. My concerns are indeed my pocketbook, the long term preservation of a free society meaning nothing to me. Once I am buried in that gold coffin, by God, the rest of you can rot.

  • One day, three of those people decide to take food from the other two, so they can spend time researching a raft. The two do not want to participate and are forced grow food by the three. Is this morally justified?
    If doing so is under the terms of the social contract, yes. You could take measures to remove yourself from said social contract, and in said circumstance you would have no claim to a spot on the raft. I have never avoided your point in this respect, rather I am pointing out that we're a far cry from anarchy in the U.S., and this obliges you to modify the structure of government to a desired end. If you consider our societal structure to be an example of slavery, then... well, I beg to differ.
    Please don't disparage my comments by skewing my comments to appear hostile. I am responding, in an honest a manner as I am able, to your concerns, and you are welcome to listen to my suggestions or discard them as you see fit. I imagine I'll take your comments in response to the subsequent post rather than here, but do you think that reducing the funding available with basic science will not result in reduction of research and in the presence of the scientific community within the country?