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Science and Technology

I have read a few opinions and entered into a few debates over the topic of funding for basic scientific research. By “basic” research I mean the sort of stuff which seems to have no real benefit, and what some people call “blue skies” research. Many people don’t want to see this sort of thing funded because there is no obvious payback or financial benefit.

They are wrong in many ways. First, its impossible to tell what will be useful in the long term and what won’t, so refusing to invest in research with no immediate benefit could easily result in important discoveries never being made. Second, science is a cumulative thing and many practical discoveries rely on the less obviously useful ones being made already. And third, who has the right to hold up science, even if it could be proved there would never be a benefit?

Some people answer the last point by saying that the government and other funding authorities who represent the taxpayers and shareholders who are the ultimate providers of funds have that right. Again, I think they are wrong. Science deserves to have a certain portion of its funding available for the type of research that experts in scientific fields want to do, even if no one can see any financial benefit in that. It should be enough that science gives us what it does without having to justify itself to politicians and managers.

People should also understand that there is a difference between science and technology. I’m a technologist myself and work in a university with many scientists (as well as having an amateur interest in science) and the two have different aims even though they very much rely on each other.

I think of technology as applied science although the distinction is a bit imprecise because technology doesn’t have to come from science. I would like to see more “blue skies” work being done in technology as well as science. Google gives its employees a portion of their paid time to work on projects of their choice and it does produce results. Unfortunately most other companies are too focussed on simplistic measures of performance and miss out on that sort of opportunity.

We really need to get out of the capitalist, management-driven mindset or we will be condemned to mediocrity forever. Very little of any value ever arose from a tightly managed, commercially oriented environment. Almost all managers (in my experience) concentrate on taking the easy path because they have to justify themselves to managers further up the hierarchy. Its just too hard for them to try to do anything better than the way it has always been done.

I would also say (perhaps somewhat cynically and perhaps a bit unfairly in some cases) that managers are just naturally mediocre, unimaginative, self-centered people otherwise why would they want to get into management in the first place?

So I think we need to throw piles of cash at people working in the areas of science and technology and just let them do what they think could be interesting. Forget about the grant applications, forget about the management reports, and forget about the formal reporting of project progress. Just wait and see what happens. I suspect the results would be far greater than any micro-managed project would ever get.

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