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Fundamental Research

The best case for government science funding is as to basic or fundamental science—the ultimate public good. No one in the private sector (individuals, companies, etc.) has much of an incentive to fund the most fundamental, exploratory scientific work, because there is no immediate benefit that will pay them back for their investment, nor is there any way to keep the rest of the world from knowing about the discoveries.

Quite the contrary: the entire world benefits from knowing more about how basic cellular mechanisms work, or how relativity affects estimates of time, etc. Any material benefit will usually arise (if at all) far in the future when other scientists figure out how to create a cancer treatment based on the cellular mechanism, or how to launch satellites that take into account the effect of relativity on time measurements.

Yet, there’s a paradox: The science programs with the most political appeal are at the other end of the spectrum, i.e., highly applied research projects aimed at tackling a specific problem, such as a Cancer Moonshot, or a Human Genome Project, or more recently, a new biomedical science agency based on DARPA.

To be clear, all of these applied science initiatives are valuable, and we need more of them.

But it’s troubling when anyone talks about fundamental science projects as if they are wasteful or irrelevant. Some of the most amazing scientific advances have come about because of “useless” and “irrelevant” scientific projects that took place decades earlier.

To take one of many examples, we’ve all recently become familiar with PCR (or polymerase chain reaction) because of Covid tests. Covid tests are the least of it. PCR is one of the most widely-used techniques in all of biology. As one article puts it, “Modern biology — from basic research through to personalized medicine and disease diagnostics — would be impossible without PCR.”

Yet PCR would be unworkable at scale without an accidental discovery from the 1960s. The scientist Thomas Brock was wandering through Yellowstone National Park on vacation, and became fascinated with some algae growths that he spotted in a spring of water that was near boiling temperature. He discovered a bacterial strain that could survive at high temperatures, and that ended up as a key ingredient in PCR.

As of the 1960s, no one (even Brock himself) had any idea whether this strain of bacteria would be useful for anything. A politician at the time could easily have held up Brock’s research as a poster-child for ridiculous, irrelevant, and wasteful spending. But that would have been false: it was one of the most useful discoveries in recent history.

If the history of science is any guide, the groundbreaking discoveries of 2050-onward will often be based on today’s “worthless” research. We need to make sure that government funding has a significant component dedicated to seemingly irrelevant topics—because some of them will turn out to be truly world-changing.