Caveat lector: This blog is where I try out new ideas. I will often be wrong, but that's the point.

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Science Creates Wonder

Why do we have children?

I'm generally not the kind of person to make a "think of the children" argument because it's an argument from emotion that can subvert logical thinking.

However that's exactly why I'm using it here because I believe that's the language our House of Representatives speaks. Because, according to a report from Science yesterday,
...over the course of two contentious hearings, the new chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology floated the idea of having every [National Science Foundation] grant application include a statement of how the research, if funded, "would directly benefit the American people."
Chairman Lamar, I ask you:

Why do we have children? Why do you have children?

Is it because they "directly benefit" us? Because honestly they're expensive. They're a drain on personal and national resources. They're exhausting. They're time consuming and prevent us from being optimal workers.

Sure, some of them grow up to be "productive members" of society, but some of them will also grow up to become murderers or rapists.

Why would we, as a country, take such a chance? Viewed from a myopic cost/benefit analysis perspective, child-bearing certainly doesn't doesn't seem to fit any criteria for "direct benefit" that I can imagine.

But Mr. Chairman, not every decision we make as a society should be based on immediate perceived gains. When I pick up my son in the evening--exhausted and after a long day of work--I'm not thinking about how much his daycare costs, or how I might not get much sleep tonight because he's teething. When we're running around together in the park laughing and playing funny toddler games the benefits I receive are intangible. What he adds to my life cannot be defined in a line-item budget by some committee looking for "direct benefits".

Science isn't about making money or immediately improving our GDP. Sure, the NIH annual budget is $30 billion dollars. Research costs our country a lot of money. But in return the United States has a life sciences industry that employes 7 million people and returns $69 billion annually. The United States is the country it is today because for the last several decades it has lead the world in research spending (although that claim will soon no longer hold true).

Of course science as practiced by people has its flaws but those human flaws get smoothed out and corrected over time. Science is longer than any of our egos and pettiness. Even that of our politicians.

Science is a cultural endeavor. It provides us as a nation and society with so much more than any poorly-defined "direct benefits to the American people". Science gives us hope and excitement; we've cured horrific diseases while creating amazing technologies. It has saved lives and enriched them.

Science gives us wonder. Every day there is another groundbreaking scientific finding that propels us as a species ever farther toward truth and understanding. Headline after headline expounds the great strides being made in neuroscience, genetics, cosmology, and so many other scientific fields

Even the most "frivolous" seeming scientific projects may hold the key to unlocking the mysteries of the brain, of life, and of our universe. If you don't believe me, allow me to offer but few examples from a very long list:
  • Studying monkey social behaviors and eating habits lead to insights into HIV. (Radiolab: Patient Zero)
  • Research into how algae move toward light paved the way for optogenetics, a method that uses lasers to control brain cells. (Nature 2010 Method of the Year)
  • Black hole research gave us WiFi. (ICRAR award)
  • Optometry informs architecture and saved lives on 9/11. (APA Monitor)
  • The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) development of cloud-computing service SETI@HOME paved the way for citizen science and recent breakthroughs in protein folding. (Popular Science)
  • Studies about slime mold informed better designs for city planning and infrastructure. (Nature)
I daresay a governmental panel charged with deciding whether or not those basic scientific findings "would directly benefit the American people" would be hard pressed to answer "yes", yet the costs to our culture, health, and happiness would be so high if they were not funded.

When I, a father and a scientist, read about how you and your Congressional colleagues, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, are trying to restrict scientific funding by creating goofy websites that ask non-scientists to submit "questionable" NSF grants that should lose their funding, I cannot help but think that you do not truly believe that a shortsighted accounting of returns is what motivates us scientists in our work.

Please, next time you consider cutting research spending or creating yet another layer of oversight, think of your children and what budgetary items they add to your life.

Because sir, you cannot legislate innovation and you cannot democratize a breakthrough. You can, however, guide the system to maximize the probability that we scientists can make breakthroughs occur. We scientists stand on the shoulders of giants and gaze out in wonder. The more research you fund, the more wonder we uncover. Because the role of science in a society, just like the role of children in our lives, is to enrich our experience in this world through long-term awe and wonder.

Short-term costs be damned.