Monday, December 6, 2010

Can Scientific Solutions be Bought?

Daniel Sarewicz doesn't think so. In this essay, published in Nature, he criticizes a plan to double the funding of the National Science Foundation:

If Congress wanted to allocate scarce new R&D resources wisely during a protracted period of budgetary austerity, it wouldn't adopt a doubling strategy, but would instead take a more surgical approach to set priorities. It would focus investments where links between science and application are well established, to deliver short- to medium-term benefits. Alternative energy, for example, offers many technological options where basic research can improve performance. And if Congress is going to cut R&D, it could look towards research areas that, despite huge, long-term investment, have shown weak links to desired social outcomes. Much basic research on cancer and on climate change fall into this category.

I know that such an approach would be fiercely opposed by the leading voices of the scientific community, who will never abandon the long-falsified belief that basic research is most valuable to society as a bottom-up enterprise driven only by inherent scientific interest. Moreover, the political attractiveness of generic basic research funded by agencies such as the NSF could be one of the few things that Republicans and Democrats agree on in the next two years. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that the most politically expedient way to support science is also the most socially beneficial.

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