March 26, 2012
As the 2012 election progresses, presidential candidates are being pushed to answer difficult questions about our nation’s direction, such as how to strengthen the economy, reform medical care or improve education. However, a question rarely considered is how the nation should handle the funding of basic scientific research.
Scientific research splits into two general categories: applied and basic. Basic research strives to further human knowledge on how the universe works. In general, it has no foreseeable commercial value and is driven primarily by researchers’ curiosity. Applied research is the application of already acquired knowledge for the improvement of a technology.
While the private sector provides the majority of research funding in the United States, this funding is almost entirely dedicated to applied research. Companies are generally willing to spend money only on obviously profitable endeavors, and applied research has clear product-related outcomes. As a result, the vast majority of basic research funding is provided by the federal government. That accounts for less than 1 percent of the federal budget.
Although not as obvious, basic research does have results that later manifest themselves in productive ways, where the outcomes are applied to create new, previously inconceivable products. Take one obscure example: the Hall Effect. It was essentially the study of whether the flow of electricity is the movement of positive or negative charge. The manner in which the experiment was constructed was later used to create Hall devices. These devices are now extensively used in cars and made anti-lock brakes feasible; both innovative and unforeseen results from an original study of fundamental properties of electricity.
As George Smoot, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley, said: “People cannot foresee the future well enough to predict what’s going to develop from basic research. If we only did applied research, we would still be making better spears.”
So why should this be an election issue?
As the U.S. struggles to recuperate from the economic downturn, the focus is on a balanced federal budget and economic growth. Unfortunately, this puts research funding in a vulnerable position. In such a political climate, it can be difficult for some to see why the U.S. should fund, say, a study of events only billionths of a second after the birth of the universe, solely because a scientist is curious about them.
Herein lies the danger for the U.S. to fall behind. NASA has continued to have its budget cut since the end of the Cold War, and the shutdown of the second-largest particle accelerator in the world, at the Fermilab outside of Chicago, has the scientific community worried that the U.S. will stagnate. Research funding shouldn’t be considered a luxury of a developed nation, but a necessary investment that allows it to prosper. When 85 percent of economic growth can be attributed to technological improvements, it seems irresponsible to appropriate funding toward maintaining our nation’s current status at the cost of improving it.
Research’s relative expense is not due to its being a lucrative profession for scientists, but rather because nature is crafty and subtle. Its ability to envelop itself in veils of complexity causes research to be inherently difficult and seemingly expensive in its attempt to know the unknown.
I am a physics, electrical engineering and mathematics major at Southern Methodist University; it might be tempting to see my stance as self-serving. This is, of course, partially true. I plan to obtain a doctorate in physics, and a funding decrease means that I may not be allowed to pursue a career in a field that I find beautiful and tantalizing. However, this does not negate the important role research plays in our nation’s prosperity.
The direction U.S. science funding takes will have a direct effect on the future welfare of this country. The return on investment may not be obvious or swift, but it is one of the few ways to guarantee progress. We ignore it at our peril.
Matthew Rispoli is a senior at SMU. His email address is email@example.com. This column is adapted from an award-winning essay he wrote for SMU’s Hyer Society on what issues should matter most as presidential contenders address the American people.