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net.wars: Science is vital

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 17 September 2010


 "Should I burn the check or eat it?" a broke friend with with bank account difficulties asked once.
 
Deciding what you can do without in a financial crisis is always tough, whether you're an individual or a government. Do you cut cold weather payments to the elderly? Dump pre-school programs? Sell off nationalized industries, pocket the debt, and use the cash as if it were income instead of irreplaceable capital? Slash arts funding knowing that you will be attacked by every high-profile actor and creator as a philistine?  Flood prevention. Investment in new technologies to combat climate change. Police. Every group has its own set of arguments about why it shouldn't bear the brunt of government cuts. Everyone is special.
 
That may in fact be why the coalition government warned at the outset that slashing budgets would be across the board and that everyone would feel the chill. The UK Film CouncilBectapublic sector
 
And science research, spending on which is due to be reviewed next month. Even Harris, the former LibDem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, has argued that science research is the foundation of future economic growth; Professor Brian Cox has compared the possibility of mothballing the expensive particle accelerator projects Diamond and Isis to "building the Olympic stadium and then not using it". (Not building the Olympic stadium – not winning the Olympics – not *bidding* on the Olympics would all have been fine with me, but this is the problem with trying to balance interest groups.)
 
At first glance, it's easy to see why business secretary Vince Cable would think it's a good idea for scientists to become more commercial: get industry to provide more funding and discontinue work that is "neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding", as the Guardian has him saying. While we've all heard the jokes about 
Drunken Goldfish and Other Irrelevant Scientific Research, the thing is that science – especially basic research – isn't so neatly categorized. When it is – when commercial interests take over too strongly – the underlying fundamental advances are lost, taking with them the next generation of new ideas.
 
Twenty years ago, when I first started doing technology journalism, I was told there were three great corporate research labs in the US: Xerox PARC, IBM Watson, and Bell Labs. Bell Labs was broken up along with its parent company, AT&T; PARC is not the force it was. Only IBM is still making news with its research. A lot of talent is now congregating at Google. In any event, over the last two decades most corporate research has in general become much more tightly focused on producing results the funding companies can use right away. That was a major reason why MIT's Media Lab was so successful at attracting funding from so many companies: it offered them a way to back less specifically focused research for relatively modest sums.
 
But basic research is the real blue-sky stuff, where you don't know what you have until some time later. In its heyday, IBM did both: it invented dye lasers, which had relatively little impact within the company but much more outside it, as well as DRAM and disk drives, which more obviously benefited the company itself. James McGroddy, then director of IBM research, told me in 1991 (for Personal Computer World) that even apparently irrelevant scientific research did have benefits for IBM even if they couldn't be easily quantified. For example, the company can more easily take advantage of advances if the people who made them are in its employ. Plus, expertise can cross disciplines: he cited the example of IBM mathematicians who find hard problems to work on within IBM customer needs (such as how to optimize airline schedules). More subtly, the production of Nobel prize-winning work made IBM the kind of place that the best people wanted to be.
 
All these points are relevant to national research programs, too, and lead directly to points Harris and others have made: that if you remove the facilities that allow scientists to work they will perforce go elsewhere. It is unfortunate but true that highly educated, very talented, creative people – and that is what scientists are – have choices about these things. And once you start to lose this generation of scientists, the next generation will follow of necessity because the way you become a great scientist is to be trained by and work with great scientists during your developmental years. The decisions made in this area today will make the difference between the UK's continuing to be a country that punches well above its weight in terms of size, population, and natural resources and the UK's becoming the third world country the Pope's aide already thinks it is (although hasn't anyone who's had to take one of those buses from plane to jetway thought the same thing?).
 
There must be some way of balancing the finances such that we do not throw away the future to pay for the present. Julian Huppert has tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament, and there are demonstrations brewing. Imagine: Sheldon is marching.twitter.com/ScienceIsVital
 

Wendy M Grossman

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).