November 9, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Priority of Basic Science Questioned

Is government funding of basic science a prerequisite to progress?

In an article for the Wall Street Journal titled “The Myth of Basic Science,” Matt Ridley stirred up a small tempest by questioning the requirement for government investment in basic science (research without an application in mind) for producing innovation. For one thing, basic science often follows innovation rather than causing it. For another, much basic science has been done without government help. He concludes,

The perpetual-innovation machine that feeds economic growth and generates prosperity is not the result of deliberate policy at all, except in a negative sense. Governments cannot dictate either discovery or invention; they can only make sure that they don’t hinder it. Innovation emerges unbidden from the way that human beings freely interact if allowed. Deep scientific insights are the fruits that fall from the tree of technological change.

These assertions stirred up both supporters and defenders of Ridley’s view. Nature wrote that the essay stirred up “lively arguments about how science should be funded.” In an ensuing Twitter war, Ridley appeared to back off his thesis somewhat, claiming he never said government should not fund basic science, or that it has never done anything. Even government’s successes, though, do not tell us anything about what might have happened without its help. A historical photo of entrepreneur Thomas Edison begins Nature’s article—a reminder of how many innovations sprang from the inventor’s fertile mind and passionate pursuit of discovery.

We should avoid the either-or fallacy when evaluating this debate. There are anecdotes each view could cite. One take-home message, though, is that no one should merely assume that if government doesn’t fund basic science, innovation will cease. “The way we’ve always done it” is not a good policy for those government officials who assume a country must increase spending on basic science to avoid falling behind. Entrepreneurship, imagination and personal ambition can often take the lead, with research following to figure out how it was done. The power of free market economics should not be left out of the equation.

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