I’m a Scientist. This is What I’ll Fight For.
Jonathan Foley

I would love to live in this utopia of pure science benefitting humankind, and even this planet, because I am completely fascinated by things like Chaos Theory, quantum mechanics, and string theory. Just the sheer thought to me that we are learning that our basic assumptions based in Einstein’s theory of general relativity could actually be limiting our ability to understand phenomena in our universe just shows how cutting edge we can be as a species in learning about the nature of our universe. The unfortunate problem comes from two points: “What’s worse is that the White House and many members of Congress aren’t just anti-fact, they are against the pursuit of facts, and have tried to place draconian restrictions on what federal scientists can research, publish, and even discuss. And god knows what will happen to our nation’s long-standing investments in research and science education.”; also, some pure science just isn’t good business.

I used a quote from your article because, in my mind, this goes to the heart of the problem of what I call the economics of pure research. Take your example of global warming. Per your article, the overwhelming evidence supports the idea that global warming is real, human made, and needs to be reversed to save our planet (in a simple nutshell). What would happen to the earth sciences community, however, were some scientist to conduct his or her own research and learn that climate change is a hoax (in not saying it is, I am using this to illustrate my point)? Chances are, that scientist would be unable to even publish his/her research in a scientific journal because the findings counter everything published to date. If it did manage to get through into a journal, it would pose a serious threat to the grant base of every scientist working on the progress of climate change, or, it would force those scientists to do what they feel is needless research to pile on mountains of data and conclusions to prove anything wrong about the article itself. The scientific argument would become something like an argument between a flat-earther and everyone else: to the flat-earther, even the most advanced and progressive research in the world cannot change what they see.

The other problem with pure science comes specifically when it is done for the purposes of advancing biological understanding. What do I mean by this? You talked about it again in your piece: curing disease. Research in this area always has a price tag. It is the second part of the economics of science I talk about. Hundreds of millions of people have sworn at one time in their lives or another that the person who discovers the cure for the common cold will be the richest person in history. Why? Because very little on this planet is hated more than those days when we suffer from that little virus. But would this person really be the richest person on the planet? Nope. Why? First, because the pharmaceutical company that employs the scientist will own the intellectual property of that cure, and second that cure may not ever see the light of day. Why? Because the cure shuts down long term profits of cold and flu medications the company already produces. The world will be utopian when the cold cure and cancer cure are both discovered, except we may never see either because we are a profit based society, so short term gains in profits due to the price charged by those companies would spike, but as the world is cured of those diseases, their profits dwindle to zero because the symptom remedies are no longer necessary. That isn’t good business.

When you think about this and wonder if that would really happen, then think about a man named James Dyson. He used his vacuum cleaner one day and it clogged so bad that, despite cleaning, he was put in a position to have to buy a new one (im simplifying here, work with me). He decided to come up with a better design for the vacuum cleaner so a person could buy one vacuum and have it last forever. His design was so revolutionary that his prototypes worked as planned. In order to get it to market, he solicited the assistance of many of the major vacuum cleaner manufacturers, but was laughed out the door every time. So, he went into business for himself. A representative at Hoover (or Eureka, I cannot remember which now) basically said that their company’s biggest regret was not buying the design. Why? Not to take it to market, but to shelve it because the idea was preposterous. They would have a new market in parts, but in a disposable economy, having something that lasts forever runs counter to that: why sell a twenty dollar part when you can sell a $150 vacuum cleaner?

I talk about this because, while pure science and research might serve to benefit in its own way in both the short and long term, the flip side is that the service that pure research provides may run counter to everything as its currently structured, like profit.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for pure science and research, and wish it worked not only as its own check and balance (contrary conclusions being the basis for more study), but as an ultimate end to many problems and challenges we face today as a species, from the common cold to the Big Bang (if it really happened that way) to finally resolving the question of whether the Earth is flat or spherical. Unfortunately, reality has also shown that the economics of research and science tend to get in the way.