[NOTE ADDED: Unfortunately, within two months of this post, Mr. Zakaria was suspended from his job for plagiarism. Such a spectacular lack of integrity calls into question everything he has ever written, and so I cannot anymore recommend his article, nor will he ever be quoted on this website again.]
I’d like to call your attention to an article by Fareed Zakaria, entitled “How government funding of science rewards U.S. taxpayers.” (The sentiment also applies to taxpayers elsewhere, of course.) I can’t vouch for the details inside the article, but the point that Zakaria makes is one that I personally feel is very important.
When I give public talks about the fundamental research that I or my colleagues are doing, I am often asked, “what are its benefits to society?” It’s a completely fair question, but with fundamental research it is typically far too early to know the answer; it can be many decades before the benefits, if any, become evident. I think the best answer requires a long view — the kind of view Zakaria lays out in the article. I often reply this way: that you should think about government investment in fundamental scientific research as similar to venture capital investments in many small startup companies; most of these efforts will fail, or will succeed with a small payout, but one or two will pay off in spectacular fashion and change the world.
And you surely want that payout to happen in a friendly country. Zakaria points out the worrying slope that the United States is on; though scientific breakthroughs have a big impact on the economy over the long term, funding for science is on a long-term decline (as a fraction of GDP) in the United States, while it is sharply increasing in a list of countries that include some that are not friendly to the United States.
Zakaria focuses on what is happening today in biotechnology, genetics, genomics, etc. He also mentions the historical case of the transistor, the device that lies at the heart of our computer-based society. This last is an even nicer example if you expand your view. The research that was done in the late years of the 19th century on the emission of light by atoms and on the electron led eventually to the equations of quantum mechanics, which in turn were essential in the development of the transistor. No 19th century scientist could have predicted that the discovery of the electron would help put a cell phone in your pocket.
[Thanks are due to Leonid Kruglyak for bringing this article to my attention.]