research activism

Science funding angst: is rhetoric masking what is really at stake?

With all arrows pointing to the need for economic growth, many have begun to wonder how changes in the new European Commission will affect the balance between basic and applied research. But scholars in Science and Technology Studies (STS)— a field that investigates the relationships between scientific knowledge, technological systems and society— say that this linguistic dichotomy of ‘basic’ versus ‘applied’ research masks the real issues at stake.

The limits of language

The dichotomy between basic and applied research has created a rift between scientists and policy makers. “Terms like ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ have become the only vocabulary with which we can imagine science,” says Brian Wynne, a professor of STS at the University of Lancaster in the UK. In reality “it’s nearly impossible to take any particular body of research and say what percentage is basic and what part is applied.”

Research on thermodynamics in the XIXth century, for example, was integrated with the aim to develop the steam engine, says Wynne. As a result basic scientific understanding advanced as a product of applied testing. Today, “people talk about the ‘ecosystem’ for innovation,” adds Jack Stilgoe, a lecturer of STS at University College London in the UK, “because the most innovative science often blurs the line between basic and applied.”

The term ‘innovation’ is also vastly misconstrued notes Harro van Lente, a professor of STS at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He has found that many people equate ‘innovation’ with ‘invention’ because they believe inevitably innovation occurs when an idea is commercialised in a quick, linear fashion. But “it often takes decades to figure out how an idea can be put to good use, the bicycle being a good example,” he says. “It took the bicycle decades to evolve before it was thought of as a means of transportation.”

Time is money

This brings up another issue which cannot be encompassed by the basic versus applied dichotomy: the trend in science policy to speed up innovation. “Science policy is built upon a lot of unhelpful myths, like the idea that science and innovation will lead to short-term economic growth,” says Stilgoe. “But the evidence is that science and innovation contribute to long-term economic productivity.”

However, this “category mistake” is not entirely the fault of policymakers, as “the scientific community are complicit in this way of thinking,” he adds. “Scientists say, ‘if you fund science, science will deliver economic growth,’ even if they know that this growth may well take decades to manifest.” In other words, while the scientific community’s worry about the status of ‘basic’ research is based on rhetoric in policy, policymakers have also fallen prey to rhetoric that scientists themselves use.

To be fair the issue of long- versus short-term economic growth has been addressed, at least in theory, by Horizon 2020, the European Commission’s latest funding scheme. Unlike its predecessors, Horizon 2020 has thematic areas that directly recognise the European Union’s long-term Grand Challenges, such as climate change, aging populations, food safety and energy supply. However, the mission letter to Carlos Moedas, the new Commissioner for research, science and innovation, sent by EC president, Jean-Claude Juncker, suggests old myths may still linger in the minds of policymakers. There, Juncker asks Moedas to focus more on applied research and contribute to jobs and growth by “mobilising innovation financial instruments available under Horizon 2020.”

Power to the people

What then is the solution? Stilgoe, Wynne and van Lente all agree policy debates need to be more informed, potentially by giving the public a bigger voice. “With science becoming more expert-oriented, it’s too easy for rhetoric to take hold as truth,” says Wynne. “Public involvement, or at least a wider range of stakeholders, might expose the complexity of these issues.”

This leads to the question of who defines what’s best for society, says Wynne, if it’s not the public themselves. How societal needs are conceptualised is intimately linked with which groups, in science and society, are marginalised by funding schemes. For example “we know that innovation in pharmaceuticals is massively skewed towards rich markets,” says Stilgoe. “There are a number of neglected diseases that simply don’t get research funding.” It’s these sorts of problems that need addressing, he adds, rather than debates over funding for basic versus applied science.

Intellectual freedom

Wynne and van Lente also say the scientific community’s fear of losing funding for ‘basic’ research might actually translate to a fear of losing what they believe to be a fundamental scientific right: intellectual freedom. However, van Lente argues the freedom and resources to take intellectual risks is not a fundamental scientific right. Rather, it is tied to periods of economic prosperity, as experienced after the second World War.

On the other hand not giving researchers intellectual freedom may encroach upon what many believe is a core tenet of science: objectivity. In grant proposals scientists are ironically “expected to describe the future impact of the experiment they’re conducting,” says Wynne. But “expecting them to be able to map out this impact suggests they should already know the results of their experiment.” An exemplar of how intellectual freedom translates to solutions for society is the field of paleoecology. Once thought of as an obscure ‘basic’ discipline, “knowing about past ecosystems is now fundamental to our understanding of climate change,” says van Lente.

Wynne points to a similar problem of logic that surrounds thinking about innovation in policymaking. “To talk about being desperate to produce innovation for economic growth, while also requiring scientists to map out the future impacts of their research doesn’t make much sense when you stop to think about it,” he says. “Innovation is supposed to be about novelty. If you’re going to produce something new, by definition, you can’t plan or predict it.”

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC 2.0 by Origami Madness

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Vanessa Schipani

With degrees in zoology, philosophy and the history and philosophy of science and clips from outlets in the United States, Iceland, Germany and Japan, Vanessa walks the line between science writer and philosopher. A polymath at heart, she publishes articles about a spectrum of disciplines, from quantum physics to cognitive science, but has a penchant for writing about what philosophy and biology can tell us about life. She's also worked as a photographer and written poetry and fiction.
Vanessa Schipani

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