The writer Stewart Brand once wrote that “science is the only news.” While news headlines are dominated by politics, the economy, and gossip, it’s science and technology that underpin much of the advance of human welfare and the long-term progress of our civilization. This is reflected in an extraordinary growth in public investment in science. Today, there are more scientists, more funding for science, and more scientific papers published than ever before.

    On the surface, this is encouraging. But for all this increase in effort, are we getting a proportional increase in our scientific understanding? Or are we investing vastly more merely to sustain (or even see a decline in) the rate of scientific progress?


We're also not fundamentally overturning most of our previous assumptions, which isn't necessarily a thing that happens faster the more money you spend on it. The discovery of quantum mechanics led to the discoveries that e.g. lasers and semiconductors were possible, the discovery of DNA led to a lot of advances in genetics, etc. There hasn't been much like that recently, at least in Physics - we found the Higgs boson and gravitational waves, both of which we expected to find, and we didn't find anything unexpected on top of that.

There's plenty of opportunity to look critically at how, where, and why we spend money on science funding, but measuring our success based on Nobel prizes isn't it. Science doesn't progress in a linear fashion, and "scientific progress" isn't something that can be accurately measured in terms of papers published or Nobel prizes awarded. Most money spent on science research wasn't ever spent on Nobel prize-winning research, and most of the science done in the past several decades didn't have the goal of winning a Nobel prize.

The question "Why should we spend money on research in science" doesn't have a clear-cut answer, and you'll get different answers based on who you ask and who you are. I've worked with some researchers who admit, at least to their students, that the "potential applications" of their research that they put on grant applications are just things they make up so that their research will be funded. A lot of those researchers think it's insulting to ask about how science should be applied, and that science should be done for it's own sake. I suspect a lot of the people who actively fund science research feel a bit differently than that.

posted by blackbootz: 335 days ago