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The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

The head of the House Committee on Science does not understand how science works

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Fermilab was designed by Robert Wilson, a physicist who made an impassioned plea for basic research in front of a Congressional committee (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

It's been said many times. Curiosity-driven research with no immediate application or goal is what has primarily led to science's greatest discoveries as well as our high standard of living. It is what has led to the ascendancy of American science during the twentieth century. If you want great discoveries to happen, the recipe is clear; get the best scientists together and leave them alone.

And yet politicians just don't get it. In the latest incarnation of this ignorance, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas wants to tell the NSF how to fund research. And here's a trivial and forgettable fact: Smith heads the House Committee on Science and Technology. It's also worth noting that Smith had sponsored the egregious SOPA. Science Magazine has now reported on his lack of understanding of the history of science and technology:

"Science Insider has obtained a copy of the legislation, labeled "Discussion Draft" and dated 18 April, which has begun to circulate among members of Congress and science lobbyists. In effect, the proposed bill would force NSF to adopt three criteria in judging every grant. Specifically, the draft would require the NSF director to post on NSF's website, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

1) "…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) "… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) "…not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies."

The first point cannot help but remind me of physicist Robert Wilson's impassioned plea for basic research; when Wilson was asked by a Congressional committee if the giant particle accelerator he was planning was of any significance to national security, he replied that the kind of research he was doing makes the nation worth securing in the first place. If the Congressman or any number of politicians study even the rudiments of the history of science, they would instantly understand that pure, curiosity-driven research has led to innovations that have been paramount for national security, health and welfare. The Internet, lasers, computers, crop breeding, antibiotics and other drugs, electronics, genetic engineering; every single one of these innovations has emerged from largely idle and speculative research whose only purpose was to further our understanding of the natural and physical universe. It's all out there, documented and repeated countless times. One would think that the man who heads a congressional committee on science and technology would be aware of at least some of the consequences of this speculative research. Perhaps he can start by reading Abraham Flexner's "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge", a clarion call if there ever was one for the benefits of unfettered thinking.

The second point again demonstrates an almost complete ignorance of how science actually works. It actually sounds like a mandate for a new Italian restaurant in Manhattan ("The finest, most groundbreaking Orecchiette this side of the Mississippi"). Almost none of the research that led to groundbreaking advances was seen as groundbreaking at the time. Or perhaps it was groundbreaking in a pure sense but its groundbreaking applications were far from clear. For instance thermodynamics, botany, electromagnetism and anatomy were all fields whose practical significance was far ahead of their times. Nuclear physics is the perfect example. If he lived in the 1930s, Smith would probably have strongly discouraged research on radioactive transmutations, perhaps even comparing the physicists who were attempting it to harebrained alchemists. He would also have deplored Thomas Hunt Morgan's research on fruit flies as another spectacular example of wasteful spending (a sentiment we have heard before...). And quantum mechanics? That would probably have seemed to him to be the most outrageous example of speculative science, a set of mind-games and paradoxes pondered by obsessive philosophers and symbol-seekers with too much time on their hands; no matter that it later proved indispensable to an understanding of everything from lasers to biochemistry to astrophysics. Heisenberg would probably have given up trying to get funding from Smith's NSF.

If scientists working on the frontier of their respective disciplines themselves have had a hard time deciding what constitutes "groundbreaking" work, why would politicians - a fraction of whom have degrees in science - be equipped to know any better or to dictate terms to this effect? Here's my modest suggestion to Rep. Smith: instead of asking scientists to focus on research that's of "the utmost importance to society at large", perhaps what you should appreciate is that giving scientists the freedom to pursue research of their choice is in fact what is "of the utmost importance to society at large". History amply validates this policy.

Charitably speaking, the last point sounds at least somewhat fair. It is important not to reinvent the wheel. But even this view poses a problem. If a hundred inventors tried to invent the wheel without knowing about each other's work, they would probably end up with products that were all slightly different from each other and offered slightly different benefits. Plus, the congressman does not really need to tell scientists to not duplicate each other's work since in this era of cash-strapped funding and tight deadlines, most scientists are well aware of this caveat anyway. No assistant professor wants to spend two years duplicating a piece of research, and he or she would presumably spend enough time doing the homework necessary to ensure novelty.

Science in the United States has led to untold benefits in the post-war years largely due to a lack of interference from politicians. That's not for lack of trying; there have been scores of instances where politicians have tried to micromanage the details of research funding, along with more serious cases of active political interference, but in the bigger picture most of these attempts have largely been unsuccessful. Funding for science has also been rather independent of the political party in charge in Washington. This relative freedom from politics has undoubtedly been a significant factor in the great success of American science; one has to only look at the political and bureaucratic controls over science in countries like the former Soviet Union, China and India to understand how important it is to keep science and politics separate. There is little doubt that science in this country can only continue to thrive without politicians - and especially those who seem to have scant understanding of how science actually works - dictating the flow of funding and imposing their own politically motivated ideology on the work of scientists. In Robert Wilson's words, that's the only thing that will continue to make this country worth defending.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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