Pure scientific research pays for itself

Pure scientific research is economically viable because it has a fat tail. Science is expensive, but sporadic breakthroughs lead to economic benefits that more than cover the bill for the other studies. If you could buy stock in Pure Scientific Research, it would be a worthwhile investment, with estimated returns on investment of 20–60%. The catch? You have to share your returns with everyone else. They aren’t appropriable as an economist would say.

The importance of pure scientific research to the vast majority of modern life cannot be understated. But this importance is hidden. The tech, pharma, and auto companies that we buy products from undertake their own research and development, but it exists upon a base of fundamental science discovered within university walls. This link between pure research and modern day technology would be more obvious if, as Bruce Parker suggests, there were “Science made this possible” signs on every appliance, drug, car, computer, game machine, and other necessities of life. And let’s not forget that the Internet grew out of a technology physicists developed to help communicate with each other.

The front of an AAAS t-shirt highlights what science has done for all of us. Image credit: Dr. Biology.

A highlights reel of scientific developments (think electron microscopes, an orbiting telescope, transistors, or penicillin) is a superficial argument for funding pure research. It ignores all the money spent on science that merely led to an incremental increase in knowledge without any consequences. Why not fund only science with an obvious likelihood of providing some end benefit for mankind? Why shouldn’t all science be applied science? To answer that, it helps to consider other industries where, like pure science, fat tails occur.

Book publishers and music producers rely on the output of a few best-sellers or singles for much of their income. In many cases, once a superstar is established, anything they create will likely make a lot of money. But publishers and producers necessarily incur many financial losses in order to discover or develop a superstar. Even clear successes like Harry Potter were dismissed by several publishers. And therein lies a key analogy for scientific research: breakthroughs are often breakthroughs only in hindsight.

Even the people responsible for making breakthroughs may not recognise the importance. Edison thought that his invention of the phonograph would be limited to speech, thereby failing to see the possibility of recording music. Similarly, after publishing a theory for the workings of a laser, Arthur Schawlow expressed doubts that it would have any practical relevance.

The technology descending from the phonograph and the laser is still a large part of our daily life, but their respective developments occurred140 and 60 years ago. Certainly, the amount of money given to science and the way it is managed will have changed since then. A lot more money is now funnelled into big-budget projects. Spacecraft like Voyager, Pioneer, or the Mars Observer, for example, cost $1-billion.

Is it justifiable to spend $1-billion on a spacecraft whose primary aim is to learn more about distant planets and objects invisible to the naked eye? (Arguably pure research at its purest.) Similarly, does it make sense, for the same price tag per year, to run the Large Hadron Collider to search for particles that may merely exist within mathematical theories?

Big price tags, if big enough, can become meaningless. To the public, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson alludes to in Death by Black Hole, $1-million doesn’t sound too different to $1-billion, which doesn’t sound too different from $1-trillion. As an astronomer, he is perfectly comfortable with these large numbers. (His book includes 128 mentions of million and 120 of billion, an average of once every three pages.) For the rest of us, to put millions, billions, and trillions in perspective, we need to divide by something appropriate. Since we’re talking NASA spacecraft, the population of the US is a good start. The amount becomes a lot clearer: $1-billion is $3 per person ($1-million is less than one cent each and $1-trillion is $3000 each).

So a spacecraft averages out to about a cup of coffee per US citizen. Seems like a good deal. Except that science is much more than a couple of spacecraft. How much more? How much money in total ends up being spent on scientific research? (Let’s stick with US-based estimates, since they’re easy to come by.)

Research and development within US universities and colleges is about $50-billion: about $150 per citizen. Similarly, NASA’s budget runs about $20-billion per year. The latter constitutes 0.5% of total government spending.

In percentage terms, developed countries tend to spend similar amounts on science: typically 2–3% of a country’s gross domestic product is spent on research and development. That is, 2–3% of the total monetary value of goods and services, much of which only exist because of prior R & D, is funnelled back into more R & D. This small percentage of total funding is put to use by a smaller percentage, the 1% (give or take, depending on who is counted) of the population who are scientists or engineers. In other words, the average expense per capita on R & D is of order $1000 for many developed nations and the average scientist is entrusted with something like $150 000 per year (The total funding of all scientists is certainly not spread evenly, much to the frustration of some.)

Depending on your income and experience with how quickly scientific research costs add up, $150 000 may or may not sound like a lot of money. A cloudy night can effectively cost an astronomer $50 000 worth of telescope time, and bad weather can have a similar effective daily cost if it prohibits science from happening on a large oceanographic research vessel. These examples, of course, pale in comparison to the US congress withdrawing funds for the Superconducting Super Collider after having spent $2-billion and created dozens of kilometres of tunnel.

Which ever way you look at it, $150 000 is a lot money if it ends up paying for a year’s research whose ultimate achievement is to garner, say, half a dozen citations. Realistically, that’s the fate of much research these days. More importantly, it’s arguably money poorly spent when it bankrolls research in fields like palaeontology, ecology, or oceanography, which produce results that are many degrees of separation from direct application. Is it pessimistic or realistic to describe research in such fields simply an expensive way to produce incremental knowledge like the number of species in the deep sea? (Spoiler alert: I’m an oceanographer, and I’m not going to throw my scientific field under the bus.)

One argument against the pessimistic perspective goes back to the fat tails. As I’ve noted before, Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot provides an excellent example of the unforeseeable results of pure research: the discovery that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer came from scientists studying Venus’s atmosphere. It’s hard to put a value on the economic benefit of research that ultimately kept the ozone layer from being destroyed. This is an extreme example, but similar in principle to, say, basic research in rapid evolution leading to policy recommendations that could have long-lasting benefits for biodiversity and ecosystems. The author of that evolution post advises his grad students that should their desire be to help species x in location y, then they should not study species x in location y. Instead, study the underlying, more fundamental processes. The subsequent work then has a chance to influence far beyond species x in location y.

Speaking of chance, its role should not be misinterpreted. Although it may seem like some scientists simply get lucky, it’s only through years of hard work and experience that scientists are able to spot a winning lottery ticket. In trying to explain noise in their radio signals, Penzias and Wilson discovered remnants from the Big Bang. Similarly, the discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 system, with numerous implications for gene editing, is described by Stuart Firestein as the fruit of years of fundamental research conducted by a few dedicated researchers who were interested in the arcane field of bacterial immunity.

A scientific breakthrough is one thing. Whether it is actually an economic boon is a separate question. Academics do not make good entrepreneurs as Rikard Stankiewicz acknowledges. How, then, does pure science actually transform into macroeconomic growth? Primary mechanisms include training skilled graduates, creating new instruments and methods, and forming networks and stimulating social interaction. Silicon Valley is the obvious example of the synergistic combination of all of these factors. (Stanford University played an important role in the early development of the Valley.)

Pure research lowers the barrier for developing new products. Lower the barrier, that is, not eliminate it. Although publicly funded research is largely available to anyone, anywhere, a capacity for scientific and technological problem-solving is necessary to make use of that knowledge. Consequently, individual nations must invest in their own scientific research if they want to tap the worldwide supply. This largely prevents a tragedy of the commons, which is fortunate because, as William Press notes, there is no Global Science Foundation that has an annual appropriation of the world’s taxes to ensure that sufficient money is directed to scientific research.

Taxes, of course, are what funds much scientific research. Even if you’ve read this far, it is still reasonable to ask why a significant fraction of taxes should go to scientific research when it may be better spent on increasing access to health care, combating homelessness, or ensuring food security? For the most part, that’s where tax dollars go. In the US, for example, health care and social security costs $1.5-trillion per year, 30 times more than the aforementioned $50-billion (or about 3% of 1.5-trillion) for scientific research and development.

This comparatively modest sum spent on scientific research is part of the answer to a question that I’ve pondered for the last seven years prompted by my first experience as a graduate student when I was lucky enough to do scientific research in Antarctica: were the expenses associated with my time in Antarctica a worthwhile investment of the New Zealand taxpayer’s money? I certainly gained extensive personal and professional development, but was my ultimate contribution back to the taxpayer merely a small number of scientific publications? Yes and No. That may be the only objective measure of my contribution thus far, but I now realise that the government’s investments is much more than a desire to increase our knowledge of the finer points of ice–ocean interactions. Instead, they’re investing in research that cultivates skilled graduates, breeds new instruments and methodologies, builds the country’s capacity to make use of the worldwide stock of scientific knowledge and, just maybe, might yield something at the right end of the fat tail. 

Author: Ken Hughes

Post-doctoral research scientist in physical oceanography

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