Almost daily, there are increasingly visible calls for increased funding for university science research. Typically the calls will contrast the current funding rate as some percentage of GDP with the cost of caring for Alzheimer patients or another equally terrible disease. What often gets left out of the sometimes impassioned and sometimes eminently reasoned arguments is any deep attempt to link these two things together (funding – cures for terrible diseases) in a truly principled way. In 2012, US University R&D received ~ $40 Billion in Federal support and ~ $30 Billion from other sources. These amounts do not represent the toal US investment in research as the 10 or 100 million dollar gifts to institutions are often placed in endowments or otherwise restricted and expended over years.
In truth, funding for science is spent on lots of things. Much of what is studied adds to our store of human knowledge. SOme of this knowledge is useful and has immediate adoption. But, it is not all useful. And some part of it that is useful may not be seen as useful for many years. And the part that is not useful – who knows. It might become useful someday or it might just be cool to know or beautiful to see. But very little of science yields cures or treatments for serious, terrible diseases. We should not argue for increasing science funding because it will save us money we would have spent caring for the ill. Nor should we tie science funding to an outcome like saving money because it comes up with cures and treatments. Science funding is about a fundamental human activity – the acquisition of knowledge.
What disturbs me most about the way science funding is talked about today is the scare tactic approach. There is increasingly becoming an even more polarizing divide than politics among people in the US – the people who think the world is a terrible place that needs major “fixing” and the people who see the world as mostly a good place. There are the people who want to dwell on the hardships an individual encounters and there are those who want to focus on the opportunities.
So in the science funding discussions there are those who lament that the US is falling behind because we are not spending enough andd we will never cure disease or make life better. ANd there are those who look at the $40B, or $80B, or $100B and say — how can we use this funding wisely? How can we acquire more knowledge? How can we ask good questions? How can we most effectively invest? Even – are there better ways to make the hard choices that sometimes must be made so we can maximum good.
In a world where some people always find the porridge too hot or too cold – how do we get more people willing to see it as just right?