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Worth of basic science attacked as a mere "myth"

In a long Wall Street Journal essay, Matt Ridley savages a technoscientific "article of faith."

The 24 October Wall Street Journal offered readers nationwide an essay seeking to debunk the proposition that publicly funded basic scientific research yields important benefits that wouldn't otherwise be obtained.

The long commentary dominates the front of the weekend Review section. "For more than a half century," it recalls, "an article of faith" has held "that science would not get funded if government did not do it, and economic growth would not happen if science did not get funded by the taxpayer."

Often that article of technopolitical faith is linked to Vannevar Bush, the World War II American science leader. As the war ended in 1945, he responded to a request from President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the report Science—The Endless Frontier. It opened by emphasizing the national importance of an essential "flow of new scientific knowledge," including "continuous additions to knowledge of the laws of nature, and the application of that knowledge to practical purposes." The supertechnocrat declared, "This essential, new knowledge can be obtained only through basic scientific research." He asserted, "Without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world." The federal government, he wrote, "should accept new responsibilities for promoting the creation of new scientific knowledge."

Generations of scholars and other observers have examined that faith in national basic research. Generations of science leaders have promoted it, though often with qualifications. The 1995 National Research Council report Allocating Federal Funds for Science and Technology deemed postwar federal research investments "spectacularly successful." But it also questioned the idea that basic research generally leads fairly directly, in a linear way, to applied research and then to practical application and commercialization. The NRC report declared, "In most instances, the linear sequential view of innovation is simplistic and misleading." Three years later, an American Physical Society report went further, declaring that although "unfortunately many academic scientists still believe" in the linear model, it "has largely been abandoned."

The British journalist, member of the House of Lords, climate-wars "lukewarmer," and frequent Wall Street Journal contributor Matt Ridley certainly wants to see it abandoned. As the author of that prominently placed 24 October WSJ essay, in fact, he went further. The headline and subhead summarized: "The myth of basic science: Does scientific research drive innovation? Not very often, argues Matt Ridley: Technological evolution has a momentum of its own, and it has little to do with the abstractions of the lab."

At the start, Ridley brings in the concept of heresy concerning the article of faith: "Heretical as it may sound," he writes, "'basic science' isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think." Unaccountably, he then detours to adduce examples of duplicated discoveries in both technology and science, and to argue, apparently, that these duplications somehow prove a disconnect between basic research and useful results. He recalls, for instance, that Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filed simultaneously for a patent on the telephone, but never says how that bears out his thesis. He lists three duplicative basic-research discoveries: Boyle and Mariotte for a physical law, Darwin and Wallace for a theory, Newton and Leibniz for calculus. But he doesn't show that those advances, whether or not duplicated, somehow suggest that basic science doesn't matter much.

Ridley emphasizes a "new way of seeing technology—as an autonomous, evolving entity that continues to progress whoever is in charge." He sees technological change as "a far more spontaneous phenomenon than we realize." He asserts, "Commercial companies do basic research because they know it enables them to acquire the tacit knowledge that assists further innovation." Yet he also asserts, "Technological advances are driven by practical men who tinkered until they had better machines; abstract scientific rumination is the last thing they do."

He recycles an old chestnut, reporting that steam-engine technology preceded the science of thermodynamics. He adds what he sees as a similarly telling story: "The discovery of the structure of DNA depended heavily on X-ray crystallography of biological molecules, a technique developed in the wool industry to try to improve textiles." But about that structure's discovery, Ridley doesn't explicitly engage obvious questions like these: Whether or not the technique originated in industry, what if discoverers James Watson and Francis Crick had not conducted basic research to find what their 1953 paper in Nature called the structure's "novel features ... of considerable biological interest"? Would researchers outside the university environment soon have been empowered by newly discovered knowledge to create a sentence like their famous understatement? They wrote, "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material." Their research took place at Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory. Would the ensuing scientific revolution soon have begun even in the absence of such academic organizations?

Ridley contends that given what he sees as the truth about research and technology, it "follows that there is less need for government to fund science." He adduces scholarly and professional authorities to bolster his argument:

In 2003, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published a paper on the “sources of economic growth in OECD countries” between 1971 and 1998 and found, to its surprise, that whereas privately funded research and development stimulated economic growth, publicly funded research had no economic impact whatsoever. None. This earthshaking result has never been challenged or debunked. It is so inconvenient to the argument that science needs public funding that it is ignored.

In 2007, the economist Leo Sveikauskas of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that returns from many forms of publicly financed R&D are near zero and that “many elements of university and government research have very low returns, overwhelmingly contribute to economic growth only indirectly, if at all.”

As the economist Walter Park of American University in Washington, D.C., concluded, the explanation for this discrepancy is that public funding of research almost certainly crowds out private funding. That is to say, if the government spends money on the wrong kind of science, it tends to stop researchers from working on the right kind of science.

Ridley's summation also requires quoting:

The perpetual-innovation machine that feeds economic growth and generates prosperity is not the result of deliberate policy at all, except in a negative sense. Governments cannot dictate either discovery or invention; they can only make sure that they don’t hinder it. Innovation emerges unbidden from the way that human beings freely interact if allowed. Deep scientific insights are the fruits that fall from the tree of technological change.

Whatever the basic-research article of faith's validity or lack of it, it has staying power. The November issue of the Atlantic contains a long interview-based article that opens with Bill Gates musing on "how governments worldwide could stimulate ingenuity to combat climate change by dramatically increasing spending on research and development." He's quoted saying, "Realistically, we may not get more than a doubling in government funding of energy R&D—but I would love to see a tripling, to $18 billion a year from the U.S. government to fund basic research alone."

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Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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