More Blue Sky Thinking Please

Short-sighted emphasis on potential economic gain is hurting science

Large Hadron Collider at CERN

In November last year the European Space Agency (ESA), of which Ireland is a member, landed its Rosetta probe’s Philae lander on a comet called 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. This was the first ever landing of a man-made object on the surface of a comet, a considerable engineering feat.  Rosetta will continue to escort the comet as it swings around the sun through 2015, relaying more scientific data along the way.

It was almost impossible to scroll past the bottom of any online news article covering the event without seeing at least one comment complaining about the €1.4 billion spent on the mission and lamenting that the money would have been better spent on social programs, the starving children of Africa still hanging in there as the most popular object of concern.

Aside from Africa’s problems being a tad more complex than a simple lack of money handed over by rich countries, this attitude highlights two popular misunderstandings about pure scientific research.  One is  the scale of the investment. Reading out the financial numbers involved in any government-sponsored program is going to sound like a lot of money, since it will always be in the millions or billions.  This is what governments do, they work on large scale activities that by their nature cost a lot, so it is easy to read out a large price tag and turn it into an accusatory soundbite.  However to put it in perspective, the Rosetta mission cost just over the price of four Airbus A380 super jumbo airliners, and it cost each European citizen €3.50, less than half the cost of a movie ticket to see films like Interstellar.  Considering the benefits that we will reap and add to the invaluable store of human knowledge, this is pretty good value for money.

The second misunderstanding is how basic research benefits society. By tackling the most complex challenges out there, no matter how obscure they might seem, scientists have to overcome incidental problems along the way.  This is where unexpected commercial spin-offs emerge. The people protesting about money “wasted” on this kind of basic research were ironically posting their comments on the World Wide Web.  The web, which has transformed society as we know it in the space of a few decades, is a by-product of particle physics research at CERN in Switzerland that seeks answers to questions that not many people can understand.  If Tim Berners Lee did not decide to make his research easier by developing a way of conveniently storing large volumes of information in an easy-to-navigate system accessible from any computer, entire industries that we now take for granted would not exist.

The late William Proxmire, a US senator from Wisconsin, once denounced “wasteful spending” on research into the sex life of a parasitic fly. However the US cattle industry saved $20 billion thanks to that study which enabled them to control the pest, and Proxmire eventually apologized.

The practical spinoffs from NASA’s space program, many of which have benefited the developing world and saved countless lives, are too numerous to list here.

Basic research, also known as “blue sky” research, is by its nature unclear in what the outcome is going to be.  Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the Irish government’s department responsible for investing in research, has historically been used as a job creation engine, and has been pushed to focus its attentions on areas that are more likely to produce immediate commercial benefits. This is shortsighted.  The benefits of blue sky research may not be immediately obvious, but we still need to invest in it, and invest more. Ireland invests 1 percent of GDP in research, but Professor Mark Ferguson , the Director General of SFI and Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government, insists that this must increase to 2 percent if Ireland is to be competitive with other countries.

Professor Ferguson says that in 2014 SFI added five research centers to the existing seven covering areas such as medical devices, software, applied geosciences, the Internet of Things and digital content.  One of SFI’s objectives is to have an Irish-based scientific Nobel Prize winner by 2020.  This might seem like flag-flying, but it is important that Ireland demonstrates its capacity to be a center of science and innovation, a reputation that can go on to attract the best talent from around the world.  Other initiatives aimed at attracting top scientists are also in the pipeline.

Damien English, the Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation, has conceded that more will have to be spent on research, and has promised that the government’s new science strategy will be published in the middle of the year, and it will clarify ways of accessing more funding for basic research.  It had better.  There is pressure from some people on the continent to reduce the research budget, but it would be very unwise to cave into it. Cutting research would not be trimming fat, it would be trimming the most important muscle in Ireland’s body.

There has been too much emphasis on creating jobs by way of attracting outside investment. Ribbon-cutting ceremonies at new foreign-owned facilities might make for great PR, but only scientific research is going to produce the home-grown high value-added jobs of the future and create companies that will always remain based in Ireland.  The powerhouse companies of Silicon Valley did not come about thanks to foreign investment, they emerged from a culture of innovation and progress. Ireland has to create a similar culture, and all available resources should be thrown at it.