04: In praise of ‘useless’ research

In our cynical, short-attention-span age, it has become imperative to rally to the defence of pure, basic, long-term research. R&D isn’t just D. Without aggressive R, there will be no major, new or surprising industries.

Governments and business have steadily backed off from investing in pure research. A key moment, perhaps, came in 1993, when the US Congress cancelled plans for a Superconducting Super Collider facility in Texas.

Today, even a research project like Europe’s Large Hadron Collider feels called upon to say that one of its byproducts may be new science, ‘that can be applied almost immediately’. [1]

But once research is justified like this, it loses its reason for being. As Einstein is reputed to have said, ‘If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.’

From progress to expediency

If ever there was a golden age of scientific endeavour, in which discovery was felt to have its own merits, that age was the Enlightenment of the 17th and especially the 18th centuries. Science was seen as critical to progress. But in the 20th century, it was embraced for more pragmatic reasons, and, not least, in the pursuit of military power.

In 2010, pure research is widely regarded as a bit of a luxury. Having lost faith in progress and the future, society is besieged by fear of the unknown. In a culture that reveres the predictable, the tangible and the knowable, only the short-term musters interest.

The phrase ‘blue skies’ research is today said with a sneer. Yet research cannot be conceived of in narrow, instrumentalist terms, as a means of getting pre-cast ‘impacts’ for UK PLC. In December 2009, UK chancellor Alastair Darling added £200m to a modest (£750m) Strategic Investment Fund for next-generation industries. Announcing that fund earlier, science and industry minister Lord Drayson said he wanted it devoted to those sectors in which Britain had a clear competitive advantage, in which growth opportunities to 2029 were significant, and in which Britain was likely to be the world’s No 1 or No 2 in the world. [2] However, as an excellent and widely signed petition to No 10 Downing Street has observed, it’s wrong to direct funds to projects whose outcomes are specified in advance. [3]

Retrieving the arguments for basic research

It’s true that the giant companies that used to do a lot of pure research – for example, Bell, or Xerox – rarely benefited from it. But it’s also true that the firms that have ridden to success on the back of the efforts of others have rarely reinvested profits to finance new rounds of research. Indeed, pure research is so scarce, people have forgotten what it’s for. As a result, some things need restating.

Research leads to the production of new knowledge. That’s different from the transfer of existing knowledge. The practice humanity needs is better than existing ‘best practice’.

The fundamental unpredictability of research nourishes new experimental methods, turns up new problems, and opens up fresh avenues of enquiry. As a result, research creates not simply incremental advance, but, in many cases, whole new industries.

Each proposal for research proposals needs assessing in its own terms.  Is it unique, daring, insightful, comprehensive, unprejudiced, elegant in its approach, tough to execute but doable at a stretch? Does it push beyond the familiar and challenge orthodoxies in an exciting way?

What may be thought ‘useless’ research today may, in two or more decades’ time, become profoundly useful. One just doesn’t know.

All one knows is that research is nothing without unremitting curiosity and tenacious application.

[1] ‘Who benefits?’, LHC UK, on http://www.lhc.ac.uk/about-the-lhc/who-benefits.html.

[2] Drayson, ‘Innovation in recession and recovery’, Speech to Scientific-Economic Research Union conference, Berlin, 6 May 2009, on http://www.dius.gov.uk/news_and_speeches/speeches/lord_drayson/innovation_recession

[3] Petition asking the Prime Minister to promote discovery and innovation in UK science, Number 10.gov.uk, 3 October 2009, on http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/honest-discovery. For Gordon Brown’s typically evasive and ambiguous reply, see ‘Honest-discovery – epetition response [sic]’, Number 10.gov.uk, 29 October 2009, on http://www.number10.gov.uk/Page21111.

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