Time to fund failing science?

There is an increasing sense that the Grumpy Geophysicist gets that science is the victim of its own success.  Having touted things arising from science funding that appeal to Congress, Congress turns around and asks to fund the things that are successful. And then asks for metrics-what percentage of grants yielded results that were of interest outside that scientific community? And so NSF adds more reporting requirements that are peripheral to the original scientific merits. And then Congress, sensing there is a way to better manage the program, might seek to use such reports to tune the way funding is handed out.

Here’s the problem.  Curiosity driven science will often lead to dead-ends and failures. It may lead to results that might seem trivial and bizarre and easily ridiculed. But it occasionally leads to huge jumps and wonderful gains. The problem is that you cannot direct funding to the “most promising” areas for such research.  This was clearly recognized in Vannevar Bush’s outline that led to NSF:

Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws. This general knowledge provides the means of answering a large number of important practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them. The function of applied research is to provide such complete answers. The scientist doing basic research may not be at all interested in the practical applications of his work, yet the further progress of industrial development would eventually stagnate if basic scientific research were long neglected. …

Research is the exploration of the unknown and is necessarily speculative. It is inhibited by conventional approaches, traditions, and standards. It cannot be satisfactorily conducted in an atmosphere where it is gauged and tested by operating or production standards.

Basic science is like a patch of ground in the wild.  throw some fertilizer and water at it and see what you get.  You might get a nice strawberry or some blueberries, but you also get a lot of weeds.

What seems to be happening is that we have steered things to where we expect to be funding successful science. So if we got a strawberry plant, we now plow under part of our wild garden and plant more strawberries.  For awhile this is great–we get maybe better strawberries. But we lose the chance for a blueberry plant to appear, or maybe an apple tree.  We refine the successes we already have while missing out on things we never suspected were there.

So we need for those representing the interests of science to march in front of Congress and announce that they should fund a lot of science that will fail.  And that this is a good thing.  And that they should fund science with little or no obvious societal advantage.  And this should be a good thing. Why? Because the wild garden is where the really neat plants will emerge, but we can’t know what they are until we give them room to grow.

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  1. Is curiosity-driven science dying? | The Grumpy Geophysicist - March 17, 2016

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