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!