Trying to Decide what Science Projects to Fund? Don’t Rely on Practicality.

When science funding goes down we have to make tough choices in deciding what gets funded, that should be easy, right? Too bad great ideas often come as a total surprise. 

Science budgets are being cut across the world with an eye to slimmer wallets and practicality. In the United Kingdom, scientists were nearly unanimous in opposing Brexit and its risks to science funding. Frozen levels of science funding have existed in the UK for years already. In the United States cuts to the funding of the National Institute of Health were suggested as a factor in the lack of an ebola vaccine.

Of course, 1 in 6 research proposals to the NIH are funded, and the quality of those proposals is still as high as ever. In a world of scarcity is this concern about funding just greed on the part of the research scientists? After all, if research doesn’t seem practical, there would be no reason to fund it anyway, right?

Well, history shows us that deciding how to invest research funds on known and predictable outcomes alone will reject very many great projects. Here are two such examples.

During the second world war, Germany undertook massive programs to design, build, and launch missiles at allied cities for little more than vengeance. The V2 program fired nearly one and a half thousand missiles at England, many of which missed the island entirely. Most notably, the V2 program cost 50% more than the Manhattan project, achieved nothing strategically, and killed more people during it’s production then in attacks on civilian centers.

However, the proven genius of the men who built the rockets drew the attention of the US military’s operation paperclip at the end of the war. These men, such as Dr. Von Braun, were instrumental in the space race, and the establishment of modern rocket and satellite technology. Today, we owe a great deal of technological progress to poor strategic planning on the part of the German High Command.

Similarly, at the time of its invention, one of the most common and useful devices in the modern world solved no problem nor served any obvious purpose. The laser was deemed a “solution looking for a problem” when first built, and earlier investigations into spectroscopy at Bell Labs had been terminated due to lack of foreseen applications. Today we rely on lasers daily, in fields as diverse as medicine, industry, digital optics, entertainment, and cosmetology. To imagine modern life without them is difficult, if not impossible.

While science funding fluctuates over time, trying to prioritize funding which appears the most useful is liable to miss many fantastic opportunities. History shows us that the occasional investment in seemingly pointless projects can grant benefits past what we can imagine.

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