Basic Research: How asking weird questions about science builds the economy

“Scientists, they’re isolated. They’re out of touch with real world concerns, and that’s why they can’t get funding. What can we do get them interested in relevant projects so that they can get their funding?”

This was an audience question at a Nova-sponsored Science Cafe in Cambridge, MA. The speaker was Ari Daniel, an oceanographer-turned-radio-producer, and the audience member asking the question was a middle-aged man with brown hair and glasses and a plodding, pedantic tone of voice.

The audience member went on, “I mean, there was a forest that the scientists wanted to save, and there was no money for it, so they got some hikers in there, and then they were able to raise money for it. So how can we get scientists to do more things like that? How can we convey to them that they need make their work relevant to people?”

I don’t know if he realized it, but his question was comparable to “Climate change is a scam concocted by environmentalists” in terms of being offensive to scientists.

Ari Daniel wisely deflected the question by saying that it can be hard for scientists to explain why they’re interested in a particular topic and that’s why sharing scientists’ personal stories can make such a big difference in getting non-scientists to care about science.

But he didn’t really answer the audience member’s question.

I was more than a little ticked off. My one-science-major-in-a-class-full-of-hipster-lit-majors instincts were kicking in, and I wanted to tell the guy that his thinking was all wrong. He was assuming that scientific research is only worth the monetary investment if it yields some kind of benefit to the mainstream upper-middle-class. He was discounting the idea that scientific research might be valuable in other ways and then arguing that scientists were at fault for not aligning with his value system. Worst of all, he was implying that scientists had brought their funding cuts upon themselves by daring to be curious about topics that most people don’t think about.

To a scientist, that line of thinking sounds like vicious victim blaming. But as a I thought more about it, I began to realize that it was actually possible that the man in the audience didn’t realize how wrongheaded and hurtful his question sounds to scientists and their public outreach advocates.

When scientists and policy makers talk about funding for scientific research, they typically divide it into two categories: basic research and applied research.

Applied research addresses specific, immediate problems and strives to provide specific, commercially-implementable solutions. Scientists working in applied research investigate questions like “What is the optimal dosage for this new chemotherapeutic drug?” and “Is there a way to make a cheap memory card that holds more data than the current model?” Government-funded clinical trials and most corporate R&D projects fall under this heading.

Basic research investigates broader questions in order to build up the existing body of scientific knowledge. Unlike applied researchers, basic researchers aren’t expected to churn out commercially viable R&D products. When we talk about scientists’ unbridled curiosity and their passion for esoteric projects, we’re usually talking about basic research. The results of these experiments may not be immediately applicable to any given problem, but the insights gained from these projects help other scientists further down the road. Since basic research takes a long time to yield economic dividends, it’s almost exclusively funded through government programs.

That means that government cuts to research institutions like the NSF and the NIH can be devastating.

A lot of non-scientists (including politicians on both sides of the aisle) tend to favor applied research. And it makes sense that they think that way. After all, taxpayers want to see practical returns on their science investment. Why not encourage scientists to spend more time working on practical problems like cancer treatment and less time on things that no one cares about like in-depth descriptions of photosensitive chemicals in algae? If they want more money, why don’t they just invent something profitable and let the free market fund their vanity projects?

The thing that most pundits and policy makers don’t seem to understand understand about scientific innovation is that while applied research might yield more short-term economic growth, basic research  pays bigger dividends in the long run. It’s an instant versus delayed gratification problem. A lot of basic research investigations may not pan out in terms of producing new commercial products, but a single breakthrough in basic research can spawn an entire generation of innovations across both applied and basic research.

For instance, when it debuted, Einstein’s theory of relativity was an excellent example of physics at its most theoretical, but in the decades since, its paradigm-shifting implications have enabled the development of GPS and cell phones and pretty much every satellite-based technology in the world (and consequently, every business endeavor that relies on these technologies).

Justifying funding for basic research can be tough because it’s almost impossible to predict which studies will make the biggest impact. But its unpredictability is what makes it valuable. By uncovering unexpected correlations and generating new research questions, basic research projects can shift the way scientists think. Which, of course, leads to innovation.

For people who are actively working in the field, the connection between basic and applied research is obvious. But for outside observers, I’m not so sure.

Most popular science news outlets focus on either the “Gee, whiz! Who would have thunk it?” wonders of pure research (See Discover) or the entrepreneurial world-economy-transforming impact of applied research (See Wired) but not the political and economic factors that determine which research proposals receive funding. In-depth discussions about those forces tend to be restricted to outlets that are explicitly aimed at scientists (See Nature’s News and Opinion sections).

There are totally valid editorial reasons why these outlets report science news the way they do, but the way science news is covered in this country leaves a large segment of the general public in the dark about how federal funding finds its way into research labs and how political mandates affect research labs’ output.

The disconnect is so dramatic that a relatively simple question from a well-meaning Cambridge resident can sound completely different to scientist and non-scientist ears.

He probably thought he was asking : “I don’t see why scientists are so fascinated with topics that I don’t care about. That seems wasteful. How can we convince them to apply their education and resources to problems that need solving?”

I heard: “I don’t understand science, but I think that my taxpaying investment gives me the authority to challenge scientists’ priorities. How can we convince scientists in basic research, who have voluntarily chosen to spend 12+ years of their lives in school so they can spend 80 hours per week working for almost no pay in hopes of furthering human understanding of the universe to stop working on projects they’re passionate and curious about? I know they’ve been hit hard by the sequester but that’s their fault for not pursuing topics with obvious economic benefits. How do we convince them to shift their focus to projects that will benefit me and my friends?”

Am I being oversensitive and reading condescension into an innocent question? Maybe a little bit.  But the man asking the question was assuming that basic research is a detrimental quirk of the scientific mindset. He was missing a key aspect of how science works:

Scientific innovation (the type of discovery that generates new technologies and new solutions to problems) requires “thinking outside of the box”. Scientists generate those “outside of the box thoughts” by asking weird questions and analyzing connections that most people don’t see.

Cutting off funding to noncommercial research area is bad, not because it puts scientists out of work or stymies their ability to express themselves, but because it reduces the pool of unexpected observations and unanswered questions that drive innovation. Granted, it is incredibly difficult to trace the origins of innovation and to put an official price tag on the costs and benefits of any given research project. However, scientific curiosity encompasses a broader range of topics than conventional economic interests.

 tl;dr: Scientists’ habit of investigating weird questions generates a body of knowledge that leads to innovation and economic growth. But they can’t investigate without baseline funding.

And that’s why scientists get mad when their funding is taken away.

But don’t take my word for it. If you want even more reading on basic research and its economic impact:

What do you think? Are the benefits of basic research worth the billions we spend? Discuss in the comments below!


  1. Bradley

    Very well written. A lot of times I think that if people just understood a small fraction of any basic-science research project and the questions behind it, they would immediately jump on board and demand more NIH and NSF funding. After this thought I realize that that the high, innate curiosity that we scientist have is not shared by the general public. 🙂 I do seriously think that public education is key.

    1. Post
      Diana Crow

      I mean, I wouldn’t underestimate the public’s curiosity. I think that most people want to know more about the world around them; it’s just that they don’t want to pay for projects they don’t understand.

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