In praise of science investment, especially basic research
More on this in a great new piece by Tony Mills (whom I chatted with back in May), a resident senior fellow and director of science policy at the R Street Institute, and a senior fellow at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy:
Not all scientific discoveries lead to technological breakthroughs. And it is usually difficult or impossible to predict which ones will. Those that do — like the atomic model developed by Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr in 1913 or the 1956 discovery of DNA polymerase (without which we couldn’t use RT-PCR to test for SARS-CoV2 today) — can take decades to bear technological fruit. That’s why, historically, the government rather than the private sector has taken the lead in funding basic science.
Unfortunately, U.S. R&D has become increasingly biased against basic science over the last few decades. This is partly because the private sector — which funds vastly more applied research and development than basic science — has overtaken the public sector as the largest funder of R&D. But even within the public sector, applied research and development comprises a larger and larger share of research dollars. The result is that, for all our talk about science today, we are massively underinvesting in scientific research.
Policy proposals calling for more R&D spending are right to highlight the importance of federal funding of science. Historically, however, our country’s ability to develop and deploy innovative technologies, as in World War II and the ensuing decades, resulted from not just federal funding, but also progress in our basic understanding of nature. It is here that government should focus its efforts, rather than simply spending more money on technology. To ensure America’s scientific and technological preeminence — and to better prepare for the next public health (or other) emergency — lawmakers should prioritize basic science.