Humanity Relies on Two Kinds of Science — But Only One Gets the Big Bucks

Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Avideh Zakhor is a Hertz Foundation Fellow and recipient of the prestigious Hertz Foundation Grant for graduate study in the applications of the physical, biological and engineering sciences. Here, she illuminates the difference between 'big science', which draws multiple billions in funding, versus 'little science', which are the seed ideas for our future technology — and the ones that are suffering from science funding cuts. Zakhor insists that Capitol Hill, not Silicon Valley or venture capitalists, must fund little science as the government is in a better position to foster long-term innovation. With the support of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, she pursued a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.

The Hertz Foundation mission is to provide unique financial and fellowship support to the nation's most remarkable PhD students in the hard sciences. Hertz Fellowships are among the most prestigious in the world, and the foundation has invested over $200 million in Hertz Fellows since 1963 (present value) and supported over 1,100 brilliant and creative young scientists, who have gone on to become Nobel laureates, high-ranking military personnel, astronauts, inventors, Silicon Valley leaders, and tenured university professors. For more information, visit hertzfoundation.org.

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TRANSCRIPT

Avideh Zakhor: They call it "Little Science versus Big Science." So the trend in big science is now, "Okay, wow. We’re going to have a mega-center of $50 million a year going to University of X, and a hundred scientists are all going to be working on this one gigantic project." And examples of those are particle physics experiments where you need a huge amount of capital.

The trend in government funding is more towards more and more big science, and little science is kind of getting ignored. 

But small science is, you know, individual investigators or scientists thinking about an idea that is very risky. You still don’t know whether it warrants $50 million worth of investment in terms of further scientific inquiry, but a little bit of money could go a long way.

When I visited Capitol Hill I didn’t feel that there was a lot of scientific ignorance going on but more like political ideology as to how government funding and where government funding should be applied. 

So, for example, when I described the project that we were working on at the time at UC Berkeley that was being commercialized by the Department of Energy into a "real" company, some of the people that we met in Capitol Hill thought that government should not be in the business of funding companies to make products. They thought that venture capitalists should. And my response to that was, "Well, if you visit run-of-the-mill Sandhill Road venture capitalists in the Bay area, they’re mostly interested in social media kind of companies: 'Who’s going to beat Facebook? Who’s going to be the next Twitter? Who’s going to be the next Linked In? Or who’s going to be the next Google,' which has a huge advertising revenue."

And so there’s two things there: One is, smaller projects that have bigger impact and societal impact kind of get ignored. Also, niche technologies that we can build on for future things will not thrive; they will go away. I mean a lot of the things that we’re reaping the benefit of today are because of the basic scientific research that we funded in the 60s and the 70s and the 80s. So if they stop doing that kind of funding by the government, after a while we just won’t have anything to build on top of. We’ll just be advertising to each other and connecting with each other on social media. And that’s it. And that’s not where we want to end up. 

So there is a role for government in terms of promoting scientific research for both the sake of scientific research and also for commercializing the scientific research. The government is the only entity that can take a slightly longer point of view in terms of these developments. But I think it’s good for that to happen because sometimes good ideas need a little bit of funding before they can become bigger ideas.