A minor industry in certain quarters is the generation of stories with headlines like "Uncle Sam Wastes Your Tax Dollars to Study Sex Life of Screwworm Fly" or "Scientist Gets Cushy Federal $ $ $ Teaching Monkeys to Talk."
Invariably, the scientific activities targeted for this treatment are government-funded research projects of the most fundamental sort, designed to expand our base of scientific knowledge rather than achieve some specific objective. What gives these formula pieces their particular bite is that the work seems irrelevant -- sometimes absurdly so -- to pressing daily concerns like coping with high prices or getting gasoline into the car.
Why, in these hard times, is the government giving money to scientists to study bugs and monkeys? If we are going to support science, let's at least have the scientists do something practical like developing synthetic fuel, or finding a cure for cancer, or improving economic productivity.
There is a brusque, no-nonsense logic to the approach, but it is a blinkered logic, one that fails to grasp the full role of science in our highly technological culture. If it were to govern the distribution of research funds, it would ultimately sap the vitality of the nation every bit as destructively as economic depression or energy starvation.
It is true, of course, that one of the most important roles of scientific research is the development of new products and the introduction of new technologies. Indeed, this sort of applied and developmental work accounts for the great bulk of our national R & D effort, both public and private, and it is perfectly appropriate to judge its worth in terms of the direct economic and social benefits it will bring.
What I am concerned about is the remaining one-eighth of U.S. research, that which is basic in character. The goal of this work is to expand our knowledge of life and our universe without regard to specific applications. Consequently, basic research may seem to be an aimless, free-floating indulgence, yet its product is an expanding web of knowledge containing the seeds of future applications and future surges in technology. It is the vital precursor to such practical scientific applications as developing synthetic fuel, or finding a cure for cancer, or improving economic productivity.
To illustrate the critical relationship between the two types of research, suppose the nation had declared a "war" on polio in the 1920s, seeking a quick fix to a major problem. Today we would boast of a magnificent technology in iron lungs, powered wheel chairs and other chilling appliances that were our only answers to that disease until the 1950s. Only after research of the most basic kind had brought to light the viral origin of the disease was it possible to develop the Salk and Sabin vaccines, which have proved so effective. Clearly, what we can realistically hope to achieve with our technology at any given moment is harshly constrained by the availability of fundamental knowledge. Unless we continually expand this knowledge, we will find our potential for new and beneficial applications contracting before our eyes.
Consider those fanciful headlines again. The screwworm fly is a major cattle pest in the South and Southwestern United States. In the years of its unchallenged infestation, it exacted annual losses of hundreds of millions of dollars on the cattle industry. But the pest has an Achilles heel -- its reproductive cycle. By releasing huge numbers of sterilized but otherwise viable insects on the wild population, it has been possible literally to "mate" the screwworn fly out of existence in large regions of the United States.
Before the Agriculture Department could launch its remarkable eradication effort, an extensive body of prior scientific knowledge had to be assembled. One important part was the discovery in the 1940s that insects could be made sterile by X-rays. That discovery arose in an entirely different context -- genetic experiments with fruit flies. Another part was the gathering of data on the population densities of various insects in the natural state. Only after this foundation of prior knowledge was constructed could scientists predict with confidence that low-density populations of insect pests like the screwworm fly would be vulnerable to the sterile-insect release method.
With respect to the second headline I have concocted, scientific interest in the remarkable facility chimpanzees have displayed in understanding and using linquistic symbols is largely fundamental at the present time, promising insights about the development of language as well as intelligence itself. But it is already apparent that the work has important applications, and may find many more, in helping learning-disabled children acquire language and helping adult stroke victims reacquire language.
To deride basic research projects like these as "academic con-games" or to insist that all government-supported scientific inquiry have a practical aim is simply to ignore the deep linkage between basic research, technological advance and economic and social welfare. Such a stance may seem tough-minded and the essence of common sense in light of the harsh economic realities we face today, but it's hardly the basis of sound public policy. Such tunnel vision would simply foreclose our nation's future options and deprive it of a fertile source of cultural, social and economic enrichment. As we look into the future, it is clear that our national well-being is going to depend on how wisely we deal with the constraints of a world with very real resource limitations. The roots of that wisdom are forming now and must be nurtured.