A Piece All Scientists Should Read – “What’s so Special About Science (And How Much Should We Spend on It?)”

Posted: February 10, 2014 in Academia, Worldview
All scientists should read: “What’s so Special About Science (And How Much Should We Spend on It?)”

Near the end of last year the president of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science, publishers of Science magazine) wrote a great piece that every scientist should read. It concerns the role of science, and particularly basic science, in boosting GDP (gross domestic product) and providing the fodder for technological advance. A lot of great talking points for dealing with science skeptics here.

The growth in U.S. GDP per captia has been exponential since the late 19th century. Such growth is largely responsible for the high standard of living those in the US, and other developed countries, have enjoyed over the past half century or so. And what is the primary driver of this growth? It turns out that at least 50%, and up to 85%, is due to technological progress buttressed by basic science, as opposed to natural resources, land, and labor. What’s further, the return on basic science is impressive:

Many institutions, including our universities and retirement funds, accept 5% sustained ROI as a decent return. Yet investments in basic research are variously estimated as ultimately returning between 20% and 60% per year

Wowzers! If that isn’t a number to impress your friends and family, I don’t know what is. I know I always find it challenging to explain to others why it’s worth doing basic scientific research. I usually point them to the fact that green flourescent protein was discovered in jellyfish and taq polymerase originally came from thermophilic bacteria. Both have revolutionized biological science, and both came out of very basic science. But it’s nice to have some sexy numbers to back this claim up!

Another interesting aspect of the piece that is discussed is the idea of appropriability. I had not really thought about this idea before, but it is essentially the ability for the creator or discoverer of a technology to appropriate it and turn it into something that can be sold in the market. As we move into a more global and digital world, the relationship between where a discovery is made and who benefits from it economically, is increasingly blurred. 

The piece then ends with a bit that almost brought a tear to my eye:

A 2009 Harris poll (17) asked the public to name the most prestigious occupations. The answers (in order) were firefighter, scientist, doctor, nurse, teacher, and military officer. What struck me immediately when I saw this result is that every one of these, except scientist, is an immediate helper occupation. These people save us from fires, prevent attacks, teach our children, and heal us. By contrast, the value of scientists and the benefit they produce can be very long term. Yet the public perceives scientists as belonging in the same basket of high-prestige helper occupations. This tells us something. Another poll, by Pew (18), finds that the majority of Americans think that government investments in basic scientific research (73%) and engineering and technology (74%) pay off in the long run, with only small differences between Democrats and Republicans. That also tells us something.

When I ask nonscientists, “what is science good for?”, only rarely do I hear the answer that it promotes economic growth. Instead, most answers are about science creating a better world in ways not easily monetizable: enabling longer, healthier lives; protecting the planet; feeding humanity; deterring (or winning) international conflicts; bringing us resiliency to engage future challenges of an uncertain world, with climate change as one example. People also talk about the basic human need for discovery and understanding of the natural world, about the almost-mysterious power of science at engaging the natural idealism of young people, and empowering them to participate in the world in ways that they otherwise would not.

Wow! The day to day life of scientist is hard. Wrangling with data, papers, and grants. Fighting nerves to give a talk in front of peers, or for authorship…it’s a battle, no doubt about it. But knowing that people the world over put us in the same boat as fire fighters and nurses…well that just warms the cockles of my funky heart.

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