In a thread elsewhere on this forum, JP has made the assertion that my research is not fruitful for the general population. I'd rather not necessarily get into a debate about my particular arena of research, but we can discuss it as an example.
I'd like to open up discussion on the merits of theoretical scientific research in general. Is it worth spending money on research that, at first glance, may offer no practical applications? What value, if any, does such research have?
[This message has been edited AdminSylas, 05-04-2004]
If by research such as works out/with these terms http://www.endeav.org/evolut/age/sntut/sntut.htm (in: http://www.endeav.org/evolut ) might be an example of what you mean/meant I am all for it just as I was very glad to see your praise in another thread. I actually think this would have practical benefits but for now it may seem otherwise if Dollars are being spent to figure out the relation of orthogonality to levels of selection for instance inter alia
I think that art is a good thing even though it has no "practical" value. Understanding the world in which we live, itself, is a good. I think that when some high school kid reads an article in Scientific American and says "gee whiz!", that alone justifies the research.
But, it's often hard to say when any research is going to have any practical value. Often theoretical reseach that is done for the sake of understanding, without any immediate practical benefits, will have benefits later. Either directly, as technology improves to the point where it can exploit the theory (for example, I doubt that Heisenberg or Shrodinger had any practicalities in mind, and certainly not the transistor, when they developed quantum mechanics), or indiriectly as the techniques and tools used in the research are exploited in other fields (I have been informed by an economics student in one of my graduate math courses that differential geometry is useful in economics - and I suspect that many of the techniques were developed during reseach in General Relativity, a field, to my knowledge, that still does not have any practical applications).
Finally, as the Watson and Crick quote shows, a good scientific theory will constrain and direct one's thinking, pointing to discoveries and theories that may not immediately seem directly relevant to the topic at hand to those outside the field (or cannot accept the theories due to *ahem* religious bias).
I also think that many people forget that those doing cutting edge research are not doing so in isolation. A lot of research is conducted in University settings and there are students working on the research projects. Thus, one benefit is that new people are learning how to (a) conduct scientific research (b) think logically (c) analyze critically and (d) imagine new problems and solutions. I also bet you that if you closely examine research that is thought to be 'of no practical use' you would be surprised at how much it is put into practice. One other important issue is that scientists are not the best at communicating their results to the outside world. Creationists and other scientific charlatans take advantage of this by presenting clear sounding and simple counter arguments that appeal to many. Scientists need to be better about communicating their results to the citizenry who is paying for it.
quote:Scientists need to be better about communicating their results to the citizenry who is paying for it.
Couldn't have said it better than myself. I work in infectious disease research and the battle over grant money is always between the "hard science" and the "clinically relevant" camps. In the eyes of the public, clinically relevant research usually causes immediate improvements in how we treat disease. The benefit is obvious. The general public wants science that results in something that impacts their lives in a positive manner. "Hard Science" research doesn't have near the PR value as clinically relevant research. What the public often doesn't understand is that discoveries are first made within hard science research, and the payoff is in the clinically relevant research. If the public better understood the importance of basic scientific research it might not seem like a "waste of money" as I often hear it described.
To use an example, imagine these two scenarios:
Mapping the geologic strata in a certain environment. The public thinks "So what, we don't care what kind of rocks are under the valley floor." Then along comes the oil surveyors. They now know the relevant layers to search for oil, and drill test wells to find it. The public can understand why test drilling is needed and see it as important, but at times fail to understand the basic scientific research that went into finding the best spot for drilling those test wells.
In my field, one vein of research is in understanding bacterial pathogenesis, or the question of "why does this bacteria cause this certain type of disease." This often involves very dry descriptions of gene regulation, and pathogenecity islands. If you are the general public, I bet you are already tuning out. The payoff comes when the cause is better understood, which leads to the testing of vaccines and multi-drug treatments to combat the specific characteristics of a certain disease. It is the cure the public focuses on, not the finding of the cause.
So yes, scientists as a group should do a better job of helping the public understand the importance of basic, or hard science research. It should be considered an investment that will payoff in the long run, but not beneficial to the public in the short term (besides giving jobs to science geeks).
Theoretical research, with supporting experimental data, has proven to be one of the most important endevours of the human species. There are three main reasons I believe in the importance of theoretical research.
The first major benefit of theoretical research is provide a way of describing natural phenomena. It also allows for us to build properly supported models and theories that describe nature. Previous to the scientific endevour, fantasy and reality had no clear dividing line and superstitions were considered just as valid as most human knowledge. Theoretical research has, since its inception, provided the means to seperate fact from fiction, and to explain real phenomena as logically as possible. It also provides guidance to new areas of reasearch and understanding that can't be obtained by simple trial-and-error methodology.
Secondly, theoretical research, especially in the last century, has been the backbone of almost all modern technology. I think it important to point out that until recentally, technical invention and technology was based of trial and error, and not solid scientific principles in most cases. Alot of architecture was build on the premise that similar structures worked, and if the building kept standing after it was built, the design was good enough to be used again. Eyeglasses and the telescope were invented long before newton's treastise on optics. However, this was close relationship between the two. Progress in technology allowed new experimentation and research, which allowed theoretical research to progress with new data. Likewise, new theoretical theories would often explain why certain devices worked, and would be useful in improving such devices based on theories, not guess and check. However, the last century has seen this bond become not only closer, but irrevocably linked. Modern electronics, pharmecuticals, medicine, etc, have progressed because of the progress of theoretical research. Without abstract research into QM, modern solid state electronics wouldn't exist. Without QM, and the development of physical chemistry, biology, etc, modern pharmecutical and medicine wouldn't exist. Modern technical marvels such as the MRI, X-ray machine, CT scanner, etc only exist because of theoretical research. The advances in biology and biochemistry research have led to such solid understand of DNA that it has become possible to tailor make cures (still in infancy as an application.), allowed the design of crops that provide yields significantly higher than unmodified crops (saving billions from starvation), and provided medical advances such that the average human lifespan in the US is almost 40 years longer than it was 100 years ago. Also, the immediate positive benefits of technical research are dependant on the continued development of theoretical research to provide the backbone for future technical achievements.
Finally, and most importantly in my opinion, theoretical research gives us one of the best tools for understanding reality. Mankind has looked at the world around him (and her) for ages in wonder and bewilderment. Theoretical research has provided the means to alleviate some of the bewilderment and only increase our wonder. New unimagined frontiers are being seen that would never have come to light without theoretical research. From an understanding of how the sun, and suns like it everywhere, function to how the subatomic world behaves in ways counter-intuitive to our macroscopic world (yet provides the mechanisms that makes our macroscopic world function.), new venues of wonder and understanding, and new bewilderment are constandly cropping up.
That said, I think the best way to encourage support for theoretical research is to intruige people with the knowledge that it provides. I think almost everyone is curiuos about how the world works, but a lack of emphasis on scienfic education has left the average person with no inkling of what billions of dollars in theoretical research provides. All they see are the marvels of technology based on the research and take it for granted. Of course, that is a seperate thread all together.