Saturday, July 30, 2005

In defense of public funding for basic research.

Today astronomers based at the Palomar observatory, run by the California Institute of Technology announced the discovery of what is possibly the tenth planet in our solar system. This marks the first time since the discovery of Pluto in 1930 (at the Lowell observatory in Flagstaff, which I am proud to be a friend of), that a new planet has been discovered in our solar system.

It is also a victory for basic research. There are those who say that any research worth doing will appeal to private donors or for profit corporations, and so the government should not be in the research business.

Yet, when we think of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the past century-- the splitting of the atom, landing a man on the moon, the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, all of these were accomplished with the support of government, not of private industry.

You see, for-profit research is fine as long as there is a profit to be made. But it is not profitable for corporations to search for new planets or land a man on the moon, so if left exclusively to the devices of private companies, these things would simply not have gotten done. And, it is also true (as we have seen with some research in the past on tobacco and on global warming) when a corporation is underwriting the research, they often simply choose not to publish, or otherwise intentionally bias, results that they don't like. It is only in universities and other governmentally funded research institutions that scientists have the full ability to do their job and report the results as they are. For that matter, in my own area of mathematics, there have been a number of discoveries which have increased our understanding of everything from market trends to cartography, but if the research which allowed them had not been funded by the government, they would be contributing to no one's profit for the most basic of reasons-- they would never have been discovered at all, so the practical discoveries they led to would simply have never entered anyone's mind.

Where this is most in the news today, is in the area of stem cell research. President Bush four years ago announced that Federal funding could only be used on about two dozen lines of stem cells that existed at the time (and are contaminated with mouse cells). Conservatives like to argue that 1) the research institutions are free to seek private funds, and 2) the fact that private industry isn't jumping in to fill the funding gap proves that the 'miracle cures' simply don't exist.

Both of these arguments are flawed. In the first case, even if we assume that researchers have the time to go out and appeal to various private donors (time that they would not have to do their jobs, and so would still fall behind government funded researchers), they would have to keep fishing for funding, and in fact this has been happening-- American stem cell researchers have now fallen behind researchers at the University of Seoul and other foreign centers of research. What this means is that the miracle cures will be found, but the trillions of dollars they generate will flow from America to Korea, Japan, Europe or some other place where they don't put science on a lower shelf than ideology. Further, researchers in these countries don't have to worry that if their results displease their sponsor, then the plug may be pulled on their funding (one reason why results that may impact an industry that is paying the researchers have to be considered suspect). For that matter, some 'blue' states like California and New Jersey have stepped in with state funding for embryonic stem cell research while some 'red' states like Indiana have gone so far as to ban it completely. So, if the cures are found in the U.S., the most likely result is that they will enrich progressive states while impoverishing conservative ones, even more than the disparity that already exists.

And in refuting the second argument here, about why for Profit corporations have not jumped in to fill the 'funding gap.': For profit enterprises expect a return in a fairly or at least a reasonably short period of time. But, it often takes years, decades or even centuries between the time when a concept of a potential breakthrough is first proposed, and when that breakthrough has not only become reality, but is thoroughly explored and is ready to apply in some way to market a product. For example, Leonardo described the requirements for powered flight almost three hundred years before the Wright brothers. The splitting of the atom became part of the realm of possibility with the validation of Einstein's theory of relativity in 1905, but was not accomplished until 1945. Space travel to the moon became a concept after Robert Goddard's successful rocketry experiments in the 1930's, but a flight to the moon wasn't accomplished until 1969. People have been searching for a tenth planet since Pluto was discovered seventy five years ago this year. And some concepts ultimately turn out to be dead ends that do not to lead to new discoveries, or to discoveries that increase our knowledge but not our wealth. Private donors simply are not that patient.

In fact, there is plenty of public research done that never does generate a profit. Will anyone make a profit from a cataloguing of native American linguistic groups, especially as some of the speakers die off? Will anyone make a profit from going through rocks a billion years old with a microscope looking for hints about the origins of life? Will anyone make a profit from the discovery today of a planet far beyond our current capabilities to travel to? Of course no one will (certainly no one alive today). But does that mean that it isn't worth doing the research? I believe it is worthwhile. We may not see why at the time, but consider that I saw a show not long ago about how meteorologists living today are using the ship's logs and other records required to be kept by British naval officers during the 1700's and 1800's to develop an understanding of long term climate change. We can thank the foresight of the British policy makers back in the days of Captain Cook for contributing to our abilities now to understand the weather of the planet.

Are we really such a selfish and perverse generation that if we can't have it in the here and now, then we won't do anything to reach that goal? Then again, given the support of people for a tax cut for the wealthy in exchange for the replacement of a record surplus with a record deficit, which our kids and grandkids and great grandkids will pay, maybe we are that selfish a generation. If so, we will be cursed for our indulgence.


Jack said...

Very good point indeed. Discovering planets in the solar system would only be profitable if humans were able to take trips there, which they won't any time soon. Stem Cell research has the potential to create great profits for private researchers, however, not if the government makes it illegal, which it won't. But the medical milestone that it could create is worth government funding. Come by the Jersey Perspective for more insight on the issue.

-Jersey Perspective

Chuck said...

Very nicely done, Eli. I like your blog.

About the new planet- there is SEDNA, but I think the jury is still out on it classification status; whether it's a planet or a "planetoid". ;)