Pure Science: Government Research Funding

From an interview with Sheldon Krimsky, professor of Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning at Tufts University:

There are people who believe that the government should not fund the sciences outside of what is the absolute minimum for national security, and that instead it should be left to private industry to fund and conduct research. What role do you think the government should play in conducting and funding scientific research?

I completely understand what that libertarian stance is and why people believe that and what that philosophy is. I think that there is some merit to that idea in a lot of areas of governance, especially in an ideal world. However, I think that in reality, were the federal government not to fund science, we would be at least a decade behind where we are now scientifically and technologically. It is very important for the government to stay involved in research because that also ensures that research is not done only for profit. Were industry to be totally in charge of funding research in the United States, then the number one motive behind making new discoveries would be money, not knowledge or pure science.

Although I do not think it absolutely must be the federal government doing the funding for pure science research, a presupposition to which academics in particular seem to turn all too often, government funding seems to me a good way to remind people that seeking knowledge and understanding is not about profit.

Because, however, I do not believe in having the government do everything, since there are clearly provinces of life that are best attended to outside of its authoritative domain, I would rather that there was another way. But would other entities be willing to pay for pure science research?

In an often anti-intellectual country like ours, where a great number of people do not understand that the application of knowledge is based on the existence of accurate, precise and full-enough knowledge in the first place; that education exists for the one being educated to become versed in the ways of truth, beauty, justice and mercy and not for the system to turn the educated into a cog of the leviathan machine that can in turn withdraw pay for its labour; that the purpose of this life is not to eat and to drink (for tomorrow we die), this may be an alien concept.

For when “science” becomes synonymous with an aimless notion of “progress”, which subsumes it with a pursuit of engineering that is closed to vision of the big picture, when gain is all that motivates people, when the value of knowledge reaches only to its immediate application, the people have, on the whole, lost sight of the “long now” and of the worth of contemplation even as they disparage and despise their forefathers in their hearts for their supposed lack of knowledge of the world, indeed their naïveté, as if we should be wiser than they by virtue of our position alone.

But perhaps there are some who would do what it takes to speak of the value of knowledge of life’s essences and the transmission of it, a few who do not to the core of their hearts believe the pure sciences and the humanities to be antiquated, hair-splitting fields of learning whose knowledge has already been exhausted. There are societies of learning, and there are societies of conquest. Neither must subdue the arts of doing and of creation and of transformation in the mind and the soul.

Indeed there is a need for survival. Indeed there is a need for fruitfulness. Indeed there is a need for success. But if these things remain undefined forever, even in the recesses of the human psyche, unaccessed, hidden, we will never know if what we have and what we work for is a survival that is worth having, a fruit that is worth tasting or a success that is worth delighting in.

Yet this lack of questioning and deliberation afflicts every segment of society, rich and poor, Christian and non-Christian (as seen in the virulent propagation of prosperity theology) alike. Instead we delude ourselves with the label of “practicality”, as if that is the be-all and end-all of our existence, to be more efficient for an unnamed cause.

Maybe, then, the question of funding for pure science and for other non-technical classes of scholarship hangs on which we distrust less, the state or the for-profit corporation, to have a long-term vision that does not neglect the important things in life.

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