I posted an example of this a few days ago [Zack Kopplin Defends Science].
I think this is a dangerous strategy. There are several ways of responding to the "what's in it for me" question without bringing up indirect economic benefit. These strategies are common when defending public support for the arts, for example. They're also used when defending research in the humanities.
Phill Plait of Bad Astronomy hits the nail on the head as far as I'm concerned [Wall Street Journal Editorial Board Member Gets Schooled on Science Funding]. His defense of science should be the primary talking point whenever anyone questions the value of learning about the natural world. Here's what Phil Plait says in response to Zack Kopplin's "return on investment" defense of science when Stephen Moore asks why the government is funding research on sex in snails.
How’s that for return on investment?Right on, Phil! Science leads to knowledge and knowledge is always better than ignorance. That's reason enough to fund science research and reason enough to support science education.
And that’s just a pedestrian, look-at-what’s-directly-in-front-of-you kind of thinking. We research the Universe around us because we are curious, inquisitive, intelligent animals. We don’t know what snail mating habits might teach us. That’s why we study it. Maybe it’ll lead into insight on how animals behave, or a new chemical secreted during the process, or to insight on the environment where snails live. Maybe none of that.
But that’s not the damn point. We study science because we want to learn about the real world. If we wanted to stick our heads in the sand, as people like Moore would have us do, he wouldn’t even have the venue he has to say ridiculous things like he just did.
Science is about exploration and discovery, and making sure we don’t fool ourselves. It’s among the noblest of all human endeavors, and something we should be both pursuing to our fullest abilities as well as defending from those who would drag it down.
As sure as night follows day, there are going to be comments from people who advocate the "return on investment" strategy for defending science research. The argument frequently boils down to the fact that most politicians don't care about knowledge. All they want to see is how science can help business or improve the health and physical well-being of our citizens. Because these politicians are ignorant of the real value of knowledge, we must cow-tow to their ignorance and defend science on their turf.
That's what's happening in Canada with our Conservative government. In my field (biochemistry & molecular biology), many of my colleagues think we have to justify our research by showing how it will improve health. The current buzzword is "translational research." If you don't engage in the kind of research that Conservatives want, then you won't get funded.
Unfortunately, that may be true in today's climate. That doesn't mean we have to fool ourselves into thinking that that "translational research" be our primary goal. We recognize that the ignorance of our Conservative government is a problem, not a virtue. It's a problem that has to be fixed ... in the long term. Our goal should be to educate the next generation of politicians so we don't have to be embarrassed by them in the future. Let's at least have some people like Phil Plait who will speak out for basic curiosity-motivated research. We'll never succeed in convincing politicians and the general public of the value of knowledge if we don't even try.
Let's make sure we start with our students. Let's at least ensure that when we have them in our clutches as undergraduates we make sure that they understand science and the importance of knowledge. If we don't do that then we have nobody to blame but ourselves when future societies demand that science generate a return on investment.
Looking at my own university, it's obvious that we are not doing a very good job in our courses. I fear for the future of science.
1. In the USA "science" often gets lumped in with "technology," "engineering," and "mathematics"(=STEM) as though they had the same goals.