What the ^$#@% good is basic scientific research, like at Fermilab?

Dennis-- u are a jag bag--- what the f did the general public got in benefits for all the money that was spent at Fermi lab??--Tadeusz at 4:16 AM October 04, 2011

Although crudely put, it is a fair question. Especially since it is our money that is being spent. The question was raised in a posting by Tadeusz to my Chicago Tribune column praising Fermilab for its work in basic research.

First, a distinction needs to be made between basic and applied research. The later is the kind of research that Tadeusz appears to be referring to. It's the kind of research, mostly conducted by private industry, but also be universities, think tanks and others, that is specifically designed to come up with a product or service. Say, improved computer chips.

But, to continue the example of computer chips, they would never have existed if someone hadn't successfully done the basic science leading to the understanding of the chip. It is elaborate and detailed physics and chemistry, often of the kind that industry cannot afford, at least on its own.

However, basic research ultimately does have many, but unforeseen "payoffs."  Among Fermilab's:

  • Medicine: cancer therapy.
  • Medicine: diagnostic instrumentation
  • Homeland security: monitoring nuclear waste proliferation
  • Industry: power transmission
  • Industry: biomedicine and drug development
  • Industry: understanding turbulence
  • Computing: the World Wide Web.
  • Computing: the Grid
  • Sciences: synchrotron light source.

Some of these sound somewhat arcane, but their importance are explained in more detail here.

The following is Fermilab's essay, "Why Support Science," which examines some of these issues.

Research and development activities in the U.S. represent a big enterprise, making up about 2.5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, according to data compiled by the National Science Foundation. This figure includes a significant amount of applied research and development performed by industry or for defense-related purposes. The amount devoted to basic knowledge-driven research is about 0.4 percent of the GDP. The U.S. federal government appropriates about $17B per year for basic research (58 percent of the total), somewhat less than the percentage in Japan or Western Europe, according to NSF. On any scale, such large expenditures make it entirely reasonable to ask why society should support the scientific enterprise.

The motivations for science research vary from one field to another. Some research questions have immediate goals, clearly directed toward solving specific problems or addressing particular conditions in society. Much medical research, for example, focuses on finding answers to questions such as why cancer cells develop and how to inhibit their growth. Military research is also usually focused, investigating, for instance, the effect of strong bursts of electromagnetic energy on missile guidance systems. Materials sciences explore the properties of substances that make them useful in applications such as TV transmission, power distribution, or computer chip manufacture.

Read more. 

Tadeusz, I would encourage you to read more on basic science. Once you get into it, you'll find it fascinating, informative and important, well worth the public investment.


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  • We wouldn't be talking on this blog without Fermi lab. There would be no small computers because their would be no small processors, no memory, etc.

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