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Zvezdichko
2010-Dec-11, 12:26 PM
Hello,

I'm arguing with people who tell me that we should do science only if it's profitable. They're trying to tell me that science should be left to the market alone and there shouldn't be any government-funded agencies.

I need your help. Opinions from scientists are welcome. How can we argue against this?

parallaxicality
2010-Dec-11, 02:53 PM
The problem with that argument is that it is impossible to tell which branches of science will be profitable and which won't. We couldn't have blu-rays without lasers, and we couldn't have lasers without quantum mechanics, but no one sitting around in 1910 pondering the way atoms moved ever thought to himself, "You know, if we took this far enough I bet you we could watch movies in killer high-def."

Carl Sagan once noted that had those same geniuses who invented the telegraph tried to invent the television, they would have failed because the underlying physics hadn't yet been deciphered by James Clark Maxwell. It took 80 years to go from Maxwell's equations to TV, and, eighty years on from the quantum revolution, we're just beginning to see direct applications now. The market is short-term. It simply doesn't function on that kind of timescale. The market prefers predictability to uncertainty, and it is not possible to predict where the new breakthroughs in science will come from, or what forms they will take. If we left science to the market, it would focus entirely on those branches we already have a firm grasp of (biotech, infotech, engineering) and abandon pure research as too risky. Science depends on the free exchange of ideas- market forces impose limits on that exchange.

Gillianren
2010-Dec-11, 05:39 PM
While "they laughed at Galileo!" is a scientific fallacy, not just bad history, it's worth noting that most of Galileo's work didn't have direct practical application. Several of Pasteur's experiments were pure science that only upon their development had practical applications. It's said that the most important phrase in science is not "Eureka!" but "Hey, that's funny." I recently read a book about the periodic table of the elements, and practically every story in it was basically about people discovering something really important while pretty much just puttering around. There is also Connections, which shows that any given discovery has results the discoverer could not possibly have imagined.

tashirosgt
2010-Dec-11, 07:11 PM
If a researcher writes a proposal and gets grants from private industry, environmental groups or the government then he and others get some income from the funds. Is this considered "profit"? If the government wants to fund particular medical research because it will reduce the costs to the public for medical care, is that a "profit" to someone? As posed, the question is vague. Is it asking whether the government should cease the practice of taking money by taxation and using it to fund scientific research?

Romanus
2010-Dec-11, 09:27 PM
Like Parallax said, a great deal of science has unknown utility, and some is not profitable at all--the search for the Higgs boson, for instance, or metal abundances in distant nebulae, or the stratigraphy of pelagic sediments, etc. Think of how enervated a field like chemistry would be if it were limited to compounds of immediate profit, considering how many of the compounds and syntheses sitting in Chemical Abstracts are forgotten experiments--but for that, still interesting in their own right, to somebody.

Hlafordlaes
2010-Dec-11, 10:06 PM
Your friends are right in the sense that some criteria such as profit must help decide which limited resources go to what research, but that happens already in corporate R&D; no need to make a case. Publicly funded research gets dicier, as in a sense everything is important. Sometimes political affairs will spark a huge level of investment, such as the space race. Profit was the last thing on anyone's mind in that case, although many derivative innovations did create profit opportunities. That there should be a competitive level (vis-a-vis other nation-states) of publicly funded basic science seems a given from the general perspective of long term economic competitiveness, but just how those funds get allocated is a good question and one I cannot answer. My guess is that much is driven by the hot topics of the day, a question of luck as much as of planning.

grapes
2010-Dec-11, 10:19 PM
If a researcher writes a proposal and gets grants from private industry, environmental groups or the government then he and others get some income from the funds. Is this considered "profit"?No, not from the government, not in the context of the OP.
If the government wants to fund particular medical research because it will reduce the costs to the public for medical care, is that a "profit" to someone?Yes, in the context of the OP.
As posed, the question is vague. Is it asking whether the government should cease the practice of taking money by taxation and using it to fund scientific research?Vague? "Can science be left to the market alone?" That question?

Science for science sake, and if anyone doesn't get that, they haven't really thought about it. :)

kleindoofy
2010-Dec-11, 10:42 PM
Can science be left to the market alone?

Define "science."

I assume your associates (I hesitate to call them your friends) mean the natural sciences.

Historians, linguists, etc. are also scientists. Anybody who uses scientific methodology in his research is a scientist. Should we leave historical research up to the market? Wow, just roll out the propaganda.

And the natural sciences? My crystal ball sees the super cigarette, but no research about lung cancer.

KaiYeves
2010-Dec-11, 10:54 PM
It's interesting, I was thinking about this very topic earlier today. A chemistry professor at the college where my mother teaches gave a lecture about the toxicity of certain nanoparticles and the dangers of putting chemicals in commercial products (especially food and clothing) before they've been fully tested for safety. Such practices, as kleindoofy suggests with the "cigarette" example, are frightening indeed.

Ronald Brak
2010-Dec-12, 01:17 AM
Hello,

I'm arguing with people who tell me that we should do science only if it's profitable. They're trying to tell me that science should be left to the market alone and there shouldn't be any government-funded agencies.

I need your help. Opinions from scientists are welcome. How can we argue against this?

If science were left to the market the US, the practice of science as we know it would disapear there. Basic research would not be done as it is generally not immediately useful. Free exchange of information between scientists would disapear as private companies would attempt to protect their investment by keeping research secret. There would be no more US scientific journals. The end of public science funding would cause a huge exodus of scientific talent both to developed countries and countries that want to develop faster. The rate of scientific advance would be greatly impaired and would consist almost entirely of applied technology. That is, mostly engineering rather than science. Economic growth would decrease. The US would basically be ceeding its position as one of the richest and most advanced countries and would be admitting that it is willing to become a free rider and coast along on the coat tails of other nations that put money into science and basic research.

SeanF
2010-Dec-12, 02:28 AM
Should we leave historical research up to the market? Wow, just roll out the propaganda.
Wait, what? Are you suggesting that having the government in charge of history is the way to prevent propaganda?

Ronald Brak
2010-Dec-12, 02:51 AM
Wait, what? Are you suggesting that having the government in charge of history is the way to prevent propaganda?

I don't think that is what he is suggesting. I am guessing that Kleindoofy thinks historical research should be funded from government revenue without the government actually determining the results of the research. This is the approach generally taken in the most of world, and while not perfect and not always free of political interference, it does seem to work.

kleindoofy
2010-Dec-12, 02:55 AM
Wait, what? Are you suggesting that having the government in charge of history is the way to prevent propaganda?
No.

1. There is no dichtomy market : government.

2. The goverment does (should?) not control the research for which it provides grants, at least in theory.

3. You should look up syllogisms. Affirming one premise does not necessarily negate or affirm another; that's one of the most common and frustrating logical errors around ("affirming the consequent").

swampyankee
2010-Dec-12, 03:08 AM
Considering that most current US corporations seem to think the far future is about 91 days, there would be essentially no pure research and not a heck of a lot of applied research. Research is a gamble; pure research is a bet against long odds. Why would any corporation spend any money funding any kind of research that doesn't have a high chance of paying off? Indeed, they probably shouldn't: corporations exist to make money.

Ronald Brak
2010-Dec-12, 03:09 AM
An example of what probably wouldn't be developed, or which would suffer greately retarded and fragmented development if science were left up to the market, is the internet. It was developed in the university sector with some initial funding from the Department of Defence.

Edit: Some people put more emphasis on earlier military funded development than later development.

kleindoofy
2010-Dec-12, 03:22 AM
And anthropology, archaeology and related humanities would come to a stand still, Creationism would become the rule, critical thinking would die out, and the would US head straight towards the Middle Ages, taking the big corporations with it.

It's circular.

Concentrating on short term profits make you poor.

swampyankee
2010-Dec-12, 03:41 AM
An example of what probably wouldn't be developed, or which would suffer greately retarded and fragmented development if science were left up to the market, is the internet. It was developed in the university sector with some initial funding from the Department of Defence.

Similarly, the integrated circuit was developed on government contract. So were the jet engine, turboprops, NASTRAN, GPS, LORAN, spread spectrum communications, radar, sonar, and digital computers. The transistor was invented at the in-house research laboratory of a government regulated monopoly destroyed in the 1980s.

Celestial Mechanic
2010-Dec-12, 05:28 AM
Given the current international economic meltdown, I'm not sure that the market should be left to the market alone, much less anything else! :eek:

Noclevername
2010-Dec-13, 06:19 AM
Is this the same market half of whom needed bailouts from-- guess who-- the government just to stay in business? If so, then no.

MAPNUT
2010-Dec-13, 03:23 PM
How much research could private universities do, funded from donations and income from their endowments? How much research do state universities do which is funded from other than government grants? Let's assume that the O.P. does not exclude the funding of state universities.

In other words, government is not the only source on non-profit-based research.

NEOWatcher
2010-Dec-13, 03:36 PM
I was thinking universities too.

But; I also wonder about other types of funding. The government also funds a lot of stuff like the arts.
There's no profit or strategic importance in that at all, so let's kill arts funding too.

No; I'm not advocating that idea. This idea of always applying a monetary value on something gets irritating at times. Sometimes we need to just spend a little on self improvement and awareness.

Hlafordlaes
2010-Dec-13, 08:25 PM
While we are on the topic, I see a lot of the obvious comments about the inability of markets to allocate resources to science properly. Many see publicly funded and donor-financed private institutional research as a healthy avenue for channeling funds to science.

But we have yet to define in the thread a mechanism for fair or wise public fund allocation. Should we channel the bulk to the race for viable fusion? Other green tech? Bioengineering? Carbon sequestration? Testing of the 1000's of industrial and consumer chemicals whose effects on health are unknown?

You get the pic. How does this work now and how should it work? Do established science lobbies get away with too much (NIH, NASA...)? Too little? What's equitable? Or should the loudest and most urgent topic take the bulk?

IsaacKuo
2010-Dec-13, 08:44 PM
The answer to the original question is no. Many have already noted that some science is only profitable after a long time (if ever). The bigger problem is that a lot of important science is ANTI-profit.

In particular, it's important to test products and processes for harmful effects on health and/or the environment. It is important to tell if products kill/harm people. But this is not a profitable venture. At best it will cost money to conduct the research--at worst it will cost money to conduct the research AND it will remove a profitable product or process from the market.

kleindoofy
2010-Dec-13, 11:49 PM
Article I, section 8 of the US constitution states:


The Congress shall have Power ... To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
Now that could be interpreted in many ways.

One could say it suggests that the government should be involved promoting science, flat out.

Or one could say it suggests that the government should stay away from promoting the actual research and only passively award the results.

Or ...

Oh dear.

Ronald Brak
2010-Dec-14, 01:08 AM
What does the market excell at? Well, the computer I am typing this on is a pretty good example of applied technology and it only cost me $500. Once an application of scientific advance is at a point where a buck can be made out of it the market is pretty good at driving down costs and producing things that people want and find useful. On the other hand, the operating system is still annoying, despite being a big improvement over over some systems I've used in the past. I guess this is because the maker of the operating system can make more money from the market by having a billion annoyed customers than a million extremely satisfied ones.

Nick Theodorakis
2010-Dec-14, 01:55 AM
How much research could private universities do, funded from donations and income from their endowments? How much research do state universities do which is funded from other than government grants? Let's assume that the O.P. does not exclude the funding of state universities.

In other words, government is not the only source on non-profit-based research.

At universities in which I've worked, the vast majority of research funding in the field I'm in (molecular and cellular biology) came from the NIH. Universities often contribute "startup" or "bridge" funds for labs, but in general they are expected to get external funding to run, and the biggest source is the NIH.

Nick

Zvezdichko
2010-Dec-15, 02:24 PM
I think you helped me a lot already. Thanks

Ivan Viehoff
2010-Dec-17, 10:28 AM
I suggest you investigate the economic concept of "public good". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_good

Information is the classic public good. Once created, it is there for us all. Private people will underproduce public goods, because they can't extract the full profit of them.

Of course we try to rectify the public good problem in information by allowing people copyright and patents, so that they can make some profit from the information they generate. But these are less than perfect instruments. Basic science often produces ideas and concepts which cannot be effectively protected even by copyright or patent, so society will underproduce basic scientific research unless there is public funding.

Another reason has been mentioned before - risk. There is a lot of risk in basic research as to what will be useful. Private organisations are often risk averse. Of course large companies can back many horses and hope to win on a few - we see that with pharmaceutical companies and Hollywood film companies. But they have to be large to take such a portfolio approach. The government is the least risk averse agent in the economy, and so is able to back research of the highest risk that otherwise would not be backed by private companies.

Another reason is social benefit. Some of the benefits of research is social rather than financial. For example, the diseases of poverty are less profitable to treat, so public money supports research. The benefits of people not being ill are much more than just the money you can earn from selling the treatments, so the government gives general support to medical research.

Another reason is cultural. Support to research in, say, musicology, is of very little economic benefit in any normal sense, but we value it for the contribution to our culture. Certain areas even of scientific research are of this nature, such as cosmology for example, which is of very little benefit. It is a kind of decoration to our society.

Another reason is international relations. International cooperative projects have benefits in creating networks that have value beyond the specific research being promoted.

This probably is not an exhaustive list.