America should be spending more on basic scientific research— pure, curiosity-driven explorations of the way nature works. Unfortunately, the U.S. House of Representatives has shown more interest lately in second-guessing scientists.
It sounds paradoxical, but the value of basic research lies in the fact that it has no obvious value. It’s about investigating interesting questions, not developing products.
Frequently, it leads to dead ends. But sometimes it leads to world-shattering discoveries that would never have come from narrowly targeted R&D projects.
A classic example is the accidental discovery of X-rays in 1895 by a German physicist, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, while he was experimenting with fluorescent vacuum tubes.
Modern basic research depends on government funding. In a recent Politico article, tech innovator Kevin Ashton likened it to gears in a transmission:
“Private money is the higher gears, most appropriate once there is momentum, and when the technology is less risky and more mature. Government money provides the low gears and is essential to get things moving, when inertia and risk are high and the final destination— a profitable mass-market product— is far in the distance. …
“Public money buys a deep foundation of basic science and technology that private money builds on for decades.”
In the 20th century, Americans scientists— often assisted by the National Science Foundation— turned the United States into the superpower of basic research, which in turn made America the superpower of practical technology. (Transistors, digital computers, lasers, the Internet, gene-splicing, carbon fiber, cellphones, etc.— it would take pages to list the major U.S. innovations.)
According to the BBC, Americans have taken home nearly half of the 650 Nobel prizes awarded in science since the awards were established.
But leading scientists are deeply concerned that congressional interest in research has been tapering off, especially under the crippling spending limits of sequestration. Now the House committee on science, space and technology is seeking to micromanage the NSF in ways that could hurt.
The NSF is not infallible. It finances hundreds of projects and occasionally makes a blunder. A notable one was the decision to grant $700,000 to “an investigative theater company” to produce a science-themed musical in the name of public education.
Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who chairs the committee, has trumpeted a handful of these false steps while trying to assert intervene more deeply into the NSF’s grant-writing process.
While Smith gets the importance of basic research into physics, chemistry and other hard sciences, he’s trying to use the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act— a bipartisan research policy bill— to sharply curtail funding for climate research and social sciences. The House’s reauthorization bill would also downsize previous plans to increase overall science investment, which was a direct response to the scientific challenge from China and other rivals.
Smith has tried to require that research projects be certified as “in the national interest.” If construed narrowly, that’s a pre-emptive strike on basic science. The benefits of Roentgen’s German X-rays, for example, encompassed the entire world.
Fortunately, the Senate and the president can serve as a back stop against shortsighted science policies that emerge from the House. The National Science Foundation must not become a partisan whipping boy. The scientists who vet its funding decisions may occasionally go awry, but a congressional committee trying to micromanage science would be a gusher of blunders.