Sunday Science: Society cannot afford ignorance

I have a confession: I’ve been double dipping. In a world where the private sector funds private interests, and the state funds state interests, I’ve been on the payroll of both at the same time. But it’s not because I was doing anything nefarious: I’m a scientist, and it makes good sense. The state needs to invest in science to inform itself about the world, while the private sector draws on that knowledge to drive forward the marketplace of ideas and technology. I was fortunate enough to be caught in the middle.

The 21st century looms as a time when our society must face up to big-scale problems. Population growth, climate change, food shortages, peak oil and natural disasters like the earthquake which has just devastated Japan will force us to cope with greater challenges than any other human generation. However, against a backdrop of financial crisis, state spending is coming under scrutiny worldwide. Few economic sectors have escaped the spotlight, and the question has been asked: should public funds be spent on science? Can the private sector take responsibility for promoting scientific research?

In the past century, science has enjoyed increased public funding. Major investment from the state in science and technology has produced many famous outcomes, such as the USA’s space programme and the Human Genome Project. Beyond such iconic examples, the public purse has opened to directly fund scientific research across many fields in most major economies. Proponents of state funding laud science as an economically positive investment for the state, with the intellectual capital, innovation and spinoff technologies creating medium and long-term benefits to be reaped.

The picture isn’t quite so simple, though. A basic, yet compelling, economic argument against investment in scientific research is: the burden of cost falls on the research funding body, but the benefit is enjoyed by everyone with access to the resulting information gained. This open quality of science has underpinned its historical development. While competition is inevitable science, a culture of publication means that there is widespread sharing of ideas.

Sharing, and trust between competitors, is critically important to efficient scientific progress. There are examples, such as in defence, where secrecy is maintained throughout a research project. In less sensitive areas, peer review and collaboration is healthier and enables mutual use of a collaboratively formed body of knowledge. This helps science and society in a broad sense, but doesn’t make science in general an attractive investment product.

In the private sphere, the business of business is business. Publicly-listed companies operate today in relatively free markets, and their spending must be in the interest of their shareholders. That means commercially funded scientific research needs to have a reasonable expectation of financial return for the company. There is little room for sentimentality toward the open access concepts which have characterised much of science to date, and paid-for intellectual property must be guarded carefully.

That’s not an inherent problem. Useful information and innovations can emerge from commercially-driven research. However, they are usually focussed on the delivery of a viable product: a new drug, a more economical battery or a more powerful car engine. The products may be beneficial to the end-user and can contribute to the economy of a nation. The problem is that commercial research rarely has a reason to look at wider issues, such as climate change, earthquake monitoring or health problems such as the link between smoking and cancer. We simply cannot expect private investment to fund research at the scale and scope necessary to improve our understanding and management of such important issues.

Governments have a different suite of responsibilities to private companies. They must be able to performs their fundamental functions, such as ensuring national security, maintaining basic rights and freedoms for citizens and facilitating a functioning economy. Unlike a private company with a distinct group of shareholders, everyone in society has a stake in what the state does. The onus is, therefore, on the state to take proactive steps to advance our understanding of the world around us and provide solutions for potential problems.

In the same sense, it goes almost unquestioned that the state pays for military and diplomatic intelligence and communication, in the context of a globe of nations and in the interest of national security. Similarly, to keep abreast of the most up-to-date knowledge about the way the world is working, both in a theoretical sense and a direct, physical sense, our society must turn to science.

That means the state must fund a broad-reaching program of scientific research. Prioritising the research to focus on critical issues, such as health and climate change, is acceptable, but should not exclude basic research in all disciplines. A development in one field may catalyse another in a seemingly unrelated area. In my research, co-funded by the Australian Government’s Australian Research Council and a private company, I was part of a team which studied bacterial respiration and cell function while aiming to meet the needs of wastewater treatment operators looking for better ways to monitor their plant.

For a wastewater treatment company, paying to answer questions about how energy-carrying molecules interact with bacterial solutions would have been a dubious investment. However, that state-funded basic research informed the commercial strand of our project. All of the knowledge was necessary for us to develop more effective tools for wastewater management, benefiting the company, as well as the environment and the state of scientific knowledge in the field. Our findings are now, due to the presence of state funding, being published in the scientific literature and will remain there as a resource for anyone else who can utilise them.

Science can help us, as a society, to deliver a liveable future. However, the challenges we collectively face will require strong, well-informed decision making. We can only plan for the future if we understand what it may hold, and science is the best tool we have for understanding and predicting the way the world works. The private purse looks after its shareholders. We all have a stake in the world, so we should support the state in funding the science which will understand and improve it. As a society, we cannot afford to surrender progress and human understanding of issues, large and small, to the whims of the market.

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Categories: Science | Tags: , | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “Sunday Science: Society cannot afford ignorance

  1. What comes to my mind is something I read somewhere “if you think that education is expensive, try ignorance”.
    In my country you find that there are politicians that have no formal education deciding on issues they don´t understand, making more money in a month than a scientist. So it´s just natural that the fundings for research are so scarce because they don´t see the inmediate profit.

    • It’s very frustrating, yes. The political situation is sad in many ways: while it would be nice for politicians to make decisions based on the best information, they so often have to go along with a party line or do what will keep them in a job. That’s a difficulty of democracy – the right decision might not be the popular one!

      I like the quote.

  2. Well said.

    The problem is that politicians are often, in the US where I live, totally beholden to special interests and lobbyists (i.e. big corporations) and also are almost certainly scientifically illiterate. Nor are voters any better off, and therefore able to hold their feet to the fire. When voters know little about science and can easily be swayed, as is now the case, it’s going to be difficult to get smart and thoughtful debate or legislation.

    The media (I am a journalist) are the fourth estate, meant to keep politicians honest and accountable, but unless we, too, are fully able to understand the ramifications of science-based issues, we can’t do a very good job either.

  3. Peter T

    in australia, that excellent quote is often attributed to barry jones, a former labor government minister, but i suspect it came from someone else originally. it is certainly relevant to the current public discourse on a suitable response to climate change in australia, in which fear-mongering and ignorance have been ruling the day. the number of scientifically illiterate people (politicians and irate members of the public) prepared to spew scientific tidbits out on tv or radio (frequently irrelevantly and often incorrectly) to attack the scientific consensus has been quite sickening. half the time they give the impression that these tidbits might have been found on the back of a weet bix pack, instead of being the products of the same science that they’re attacking. a very important debate is therefore being scuttled due to ignorance. the media response range from opinion writers and shock-jocks, who are actually effectively leading the disinformation charge, to others who seem to genuinely want to facilitate a proper debate but lack the scientific nous to call “bullshit” on the great steaming pile recently deposited in their studio. i often imagine these interviews being done with someone like dr karl in a screen box in the corner responding to the comments with pantomime observations (facepalms would get a big workout). how good would that be?

    if you’re interested, there was a detailed response by clive hamilton on mediawatch http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3169309.htm

    on the subject of your research, i sent a semi-urgent email to you about the model paper.

  4. Peter T

    i should have also said – excellent post.

  5. Peter T

    i actually just thought of a better example than the weet bix, pack – some have actually used the example of something they learnt in grade 5 at primary school.

    hmmm, grade 5 science vs csiro and nasa. seriously, what kind of mental gymnastics must you be capable of to think that is a convincing argument? to be fair to grade 5 teachers of science, these tidbits have often been correct (e.g., CO2 conc) but are now being used and accepted without any appreciation of the scientific significance or context of the information.

  6. Thanks for the comment Pete. Yes, it’s infuriating that people can think that a climate change scientist wouldn’t have taken into account the fact that “it’s only 0.038% of the atmosphere” or “it’s food for plants”. That’s like saying to a doctor who has diagnosed you with an infection “but I learned bacteria are small, they can’t possibly be the problem.”

    I read through the MW transcript. Good stuff in there, though it’s tough to see anything coming out of it. Seriously, the amount of attention Carter and Plimer get is insane!

  7. PeterT

    i like that analogy. i read something this week that i can’t track down but i just so hope to be true. on skeptical science someone reported that a west australian had said that sea levels were rising because australians were getting more obese…..

    so, why am i hopeful? well because i found it to be hysterical for starters. but also because that may be a genuine low point from which it is all uphill from. at least i can’t imagine a more ridiculous statement.

  8. I hardly think that the great powers historically invest or not invest in science.
    Of the other I think that can pass as my AIS that she recently started to pay attention to science and gradually is showing results and information security. I think science helps a lot and there are several branches to explore where you can contribute.

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