Why should we care about basic research?

I was surprised to learn today that my former employer Fermilab (I worked there until about 12 years ago) was given a temporary reprieve this week from rounds of rolling furloughs and mandatory layoffs, when an anonymous donor gave them $5 million dollars. While I applaud private sector support of basic research, I find it sad that one of our premier research institutions is in effect reduced to living hand-to-mouth, off of the kindness of strangers.

Cutting-edge basic research is a big factor in attracting bright young minds to science, and it pays huge dividends even when there are no obvious direct applications of the basic principles being studied. Fermilab (and the field of high energy physics in general) has made significant contributions to many fields of science and technology. The construction of the Tevatron required breakthroughs in the fields of cryogenics, superconducting magnets, electronics, and other related fields. There is a nuclear medicine research facility on site, which conducts research into cancer treatments based on the use of high energy neutron beams. The group I worked with did leading-edge work in massively parallel computing and clustering, which have replaced traditional (and far more expensive) supercomputers in many applications. Fermilab even supports research on the restoration of native prairie habitat at their Batavia, IL site. And lest we forget, the very World Wide Web that you are using to read this article is a product of the high energy physics community, having been invented by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1990! (And that’s just the stuff I could think of off the top of my head…)

By cutting back on basic research and not putting a greater emphasis on scientific literacy in our elementary and secondary schools, we are selling our future short. We are already at significant risk of ceding technological superiority to our foreign competitors. Most of our manufacturing has already been relocated to Asia. 20 years from now, will most of our R&D be outsourced as well? I am starting to think so. Even Bell Laboratories—for decades a symbol of technological prowess, and inventor of the transistor and the C/C++ programming languages, among other things—has fallen on hard times; the smoldering hulk of what’s left of Bell Labs has been acquired by French telecommunications conglomerate Alcatel, and continues to shed employees at a rapid pace.

Allowing Fermilab—once one of the crown jewels of the US national laboratory system—deteriorate to the point where it is practically on life support is, quite frankly, a disgrace. This isn’t just about some scientists working on esoteric research projects losing their jobs (which, while certainly tough for those being laid off, is no worse for them than what goes on in the corporate world every day). It is also a barometer of our collective attitude towards science and the pursuit of knowledge, and I believe it has broad and far-reaching implications for the future of Western society. Are we losing interest in asking the big questions, and (as a result) also losing the skills required to answer them? I believe our competitiveness in an increasingly global market, and ultimately our very way of life are at stake.

Comments closed
    • KeillRandor
    • 11 years ago

    It’s not that much better over here in the UK either… Lately this year they were considering closing one of our main observatories/astrophysics Centres, (http://www.jb.man.ac.uk/) amongst other things. Thankfully they managed to get some funding from somewhere…

    My friends Dad isn’t too happy about the situation either – he’s a professor of theoretical physics (I think) at Loughborough University, though exactly what he area he works on I don’t know…

    I got a subscription to symmetry magazine too, (http://www.symmetrymagazine.org/cms/) (free subsription and delivery!) so I can see the sorts of things going on over there aswell – lets hope Persis Drell can help get things running properly…

    • sigher
    • 12 years ago

    The people/market have spoken though, america wanted stupid and they voted stupid and got stupid, and now that the economy is in tatters there is no money for science anyway.

    • A_Pickle
    • 12 years ago

    I completely agree.

    I’m going to steer this off of the theoretical physics brand of science for a moment. Don’t get me wrong, I love this stuff. I think this country needs another galvanizing scientific pursuit like in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, when we put a man on the moon. I mean, stuff like that — hell, let’s stop and forget all of the scientific breakthroughs and revolutionary advances…

    …that was a human triumph. I mean, I wasn’t even /[

      • just brew it!
      • 12 years ago

      Speaking of galvanizing scientific pursuits… I think phasing out fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources would certainly be a worthwhile one. This could very well be the biggest challenge facing us over the next half century, and it has not gotten anywhere near enough attention. If there is any area where we should be focusing the minds of our next generation of “the best and brightest”, this is it.

      Regarding defense spending, I agree that it is out of control. We need to find ways to do things more economically… without compromising national security. There’s an awful lot of pork, and amazing amounts of inefficiency and waste in the current system. IMO we need to focus more on figuring out ways to leverage emerging technologies to economically retrofit and extend the life of existing, proven hardware. Real bang for the buck, instead of bang for the buck’s sake. Bright, creative scientists and engineers are needed here as well, if we are to break out of the “same old, same old” pattern we’ve become mired in.

        • A_Pickle
        • 12 years ago

        In my opinion, overspending on anything doesn’t help. When you’re strained of resources, you’ll figure out a way. Jury rigging and whathaveyou. Right now, my unit literally has to FIND ways to spend all the money we get, because if we don’t spend ALL of the money that we receive on stupid useless crap, we won’t get any next year.

        Suffice to say, we have a huge pile of network testing equipment that I intend to raid when the revolution comes. 😀

      • Dagwood
      • 12 years ago

      USA’ s military is not the budget monster you think it is. Does the phrase “peace dividend” mean anything to you?

      §[<http://www.truthandpolitics.org/military-relative-size.php<]§

        • shank15217
        • 12 years ago

        in a world of limited resources putting money into the military means less money in other places. Now you may think its important however others don’t agree. Funding a war is expensive whither YOU believe it or not, and saying war is an investment in peace is barbaric.

          • A_Pickle
          • 12 years ago

          I disagree with that…

            • sigher
            • 12 years ago

            Let’s start a war on reality then 🙂

            P.S. I can’t someone actually claims the military aren’t a drain on the budget, that’s just ROFL funny.

      • SecretMaster
      • 12 years ago

      Well /[

        • sigher
        • 12 years ago

        Not true, a hoax is defined as (meant to) being humorous isn’t it?

    • liquidsquid
    • 12 years ago

    Everyone knows that sports is more important than science. I mean look at what athletes make vs. a scientist.

    A scientist may discover something that makes life easier or better for the entire world, yet an athlete… wait.

    Schools these days seem to put an incredible emphasis on sports as being so important that family time should come second. To me, a non-athlete, this is frightening. Science runs in my family, and I really don’t see a future in it in this country for my son. Let alone a teacher who is smart enough in science to generate interest in the field.

    Sciences are still looked down on as something only the boring “brains” do, and nerds, so very little is provided to nurture that goal. On top of that, so much effort is given to girls to equalize their presence in the workforce, that the boys get left behind.

    This is only the tip of the iceberg of problems in the US, and we are getting to the times where the “good old days” will actually mean something.

    -LS

      • just brew it!
      • 12 years ago

      q[

        • DrDillyBar
        • 12 years ago

        My family is a bunch of Teachers and RN’s

        • liquidsquid
        • 12 years ago

        Well that is certainly nice to hear. I wonder how often that really happens. What I would really love to see is people who have a talent for teaching who have worked in their field getting into education so practical experience teaches as well as “by the books”… I wish the best for your wife. I hope the school system allows her to teach the field she wishes to teach in.

        -LS

          • Krogoth
          • 12 years ago

          (nitpick) It is his oldest daughter. 😉

            • just brew it!
            • 12 years ago

            Yeah, #14… way to remind me that I’m gettin’ old! 😐

    • Krogoth
    • 12 years ago

    Basic research is the freaking foundation of science! How the hell are you going to apply knowledge into useful stuff without knowing its basics.

    That is like trying code on a computer, but the programmer is completely ignorant of mathematics.

    There are a quite of couple culprits at play. Social, ideological, political in nature. I also share the same pragmatic concerns as OP. If the USA falls behind on being forefront of scientific development there are quite a few other nations that will seize it. It will be very difficult for USA to play catch-up.

      • sigher
      • 12 years ago

      Well since manufacturing is gone already I guess without research (and the money to attract scientists) it’s down to the movie industry, movies about (foreign) research instead of research.

        • Krogoth
        • 12 years ago

        For cheap goods that is.

        Manufacturing is still around in the USA for goods that require “skilled” labor that cannot found cheaper elsewhere.

        I am afraid that personal wealth is not what attracts scientist. They do for knowledge and that sight chance of making a breaking discovery. IMHO that is far greater then any material good. They only need funding for their research goal, but the sponsors these days want quick returns. Yet, they fail to realize that critical, pure researching often does not deliver quick returns.

        Our society and culture does not place much value on scientist and engineers. This is despite the fact that we benefit far more from their fruits of labor than some professional actor or athlete. These same actors and athletes get far more attention from professional and public eyes. I suspect it is because their work is no near as flashy and fast-paced. It surprisingly does not require tons of brainpower as the stereotype suggests. You just have to work consistently, ask questions, know what to look for and setup an experiment in a logical and replicative fashion to find whatever you are looking for to find the answers to the questions.

        It does not help that religious and political dogma portrays scientists to be “devil’s workers” by challenging their perspective of reality. Scientist do this from asking simple questions, making hypothesis and experimenting whatever the observations correlate to hypothesis or not. Test it again and again to confirm, modify or debunk the original observations and hypothesis. Rather then accepting some text written many centuries ago that has gone through many revisions and translations as infallible fact.

        I guess it is like bread and circuses in declining days of ancient Roman Empire.

          • sigher
          • 12 years ago

          From observation it’s money that does attracts scientist, there’s a reason why so many of the best non-american ones end up in america, but I agree that the money isn’t strictly for personal gain, it’s obviously nice if you have access to the latest equipment and facilities and supplies too, and that costs money, but still, personal gain has been shown to be rather important too, studies have been done that confirmed it I recall reading more than once.

            • just brew it!
            • 12 years ago

            I disagree. With the exception of a few specific fields (e.g. biotech), I would say that most scientists don’t go into research to get rich. They do it because it is what they love to do. Yes, scientists occasionally become rich and/or famous… but IMO these tend to be the exception, not the rule.

          • just brew it!
          • 12 years ago

          q[

            • Krogoth
            • 12 years ago

            Aerospace is a big one. I am afraid you are not going to find cheaper labor elsewhere for that. 😉

            Some niche electronics and telecommunication-related equipment.

            They are the only things that comes to my mind.

            It is rather distressing though.

            • just brew it!
            • 12 years ago

            Even for aerospace, the trend is towards increasing use of foreign-made components.

    • Usacomp2k3
    • 12 years ago

    From what I’ve seen about the research world at least on the University level, has made me really discouraged. Everything is so overly-politicized and money is wasted out the wazuu. I could say that most of the labs that I have seen could do the exact same thing on a budget of 10-40% of their current if they had honest, hard-working people who cared more about the product and less about covering their butts. Goodness gracious.

      • just brew it!
      • 12 years ago

      Well…

      I think it is inevitable that bureaucratic butt-coverers will exist in any large organization. Yes, Fermilab had a few of them when I was there (and no doubt still has some now). But the vast majority of the people I worked with there were talented, honest, hard-working people who really cared about what they were doing.

      When you get a critical mass of talented people together, it enables you to achieve amazing things at very reasonable cost. Creative solutions to engineering problems can save time and money compared to “brute force” approaches. The first department I worked in when I was there “rolled their own” massively parallel supercomputer; for a few months it was arguably the fastest system in the world. And this was done for a fraction of the cost of the nearest equivalent commercial system (which wasn’t as fast anyway).

    • DrDillyBar
    • 12 years ago

    Frequently, when I pick up my new copy of Scientific American and flip to the “From the Editor” bit that comes first, I read about how the administration has taken all the money, denies facts put forth (which scientific minds then have little to do but analyze why they can’t do somehting) and generally feels ignored. Well, maybe that’s the last 4ish years summed up in a paragraph and filtered by me. NASA’s on shortchange bolstered by 2020’s goals, and the economy’s seen brighter times….

    Everyone thought Tesla was a wacho, and now we have AC power.
    §[<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_transmission#History<]§

      • sigher
      • 12 years ago

      I don’t think ‘everyone thought tesla was a wacko’ is quite historically correct.

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 12 years ago

    We can stop learnin’ teh science. We beat them commie ruskies years ago.

    • IntelMole
    • 12 years ago

    The lack of interest in scientific research has it’s roots, i believe, in the very modern lack of patience with anything and the need for immediate return on any investment of time, money, or other resources.

    Research, at the level mentioned in this blog, b[

      • sigher
      • 12 years ago

      Hate to break it to you but without research you would not have tapes (or in fact files), not even vinyl records, bot require plastics, america invented an awful lot of compounds for a long long time.
      Seems you have a laser fetish, but unfortunately the theory on LASER was not invented in america, although the first one made was.
      I quote wikipedia (who I believe to be correct on this):
      “In 1917 Albert Einstein, in his paper Zur Quantentheorie der Strahlung (On the Quantum Theory of Radiation), laid the foundation for the invention of the laser and its predecessor, the maser,”

      It’s research though and that is the point, you can’t do without it unless you want to live in a primitive religion-based world.. oh wait that’s what the majority seem to want :[

      • iDenTiTy
      • 11 years ago

      +1

      I agree 100%

      People nowdays think: “How much will it cost us?, how much are we gonna make and how soon?”

      Pity, really.

    • henfactor
    • 12 years ago

    Interesting, to some extent this situation reminds me of the Avro Arrow §[<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CF-105_Arrow.<]§ *sigh* I still can't believe we scraped it.

      • MrJP
      • 12 years ago

      Seems like a familiar story: §[<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TSR2<]§

      • DrDillyBar
      • 12 years ago

      *Gets all angry*

      • Krogoth
      • 12 years ago

      USAF’s XB-70 and B-58 had endure a similar fate.

      ICBM had render supersonic strategic bombers practically obsolete. Just notice, how these prototypes were canceled in the years of the USA/USSR space race?

        • A_Pickle
        • 12 years ago

        AGH! Seriously, the XB-70 was *[

      • Stranger
      • 12 years ago

      I’m not sure any of those things you guys talk about go into the catagory of basic research. If you want to complain about the US losing its edge you should think about the SSC.

      §[<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superconducting_Super_Collider<]§

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