Investing in science pays off, even when the results are null.


As scientists, we always have to justify ourselves. People ask what our research is useful for. It is a fair question—as public funds are involved most of the time—but it is a poor question. Science is more than being useful for something. Here are three reasons to invest in science, even “useless” science.

 

1. Science is the theory of the real

The first and most obvious reason to invest in science is that science is the theory of the real. (I borrowed this expression from Heidegger in “Science and Reflection,” but the reference ends here.)

Science produces the concepts and discourses with which secular society interprets the world. It is science that allows us to tell that the world has existed for 13.7 billion years, that all beings on Earth evolved from a common ancestor, that our bodies are made of atoms, that our minds aren’t ghosts manipulating puppets.

Romantic people often complain that science takes the beauty away from whatever it touches. That’s a misconception that holds only if you mistake ignorance for beauty. Think, for instance, about the fantastic darkness of the night sky. To know that it is dark because the universe is expanding adds to our feelings of beauty and awe, not the opposite.

2. Science is the potential of the technique

The second reason to invest in science—less pure, but not less important—is that science is the potential of the technique. Science obviously connects itself to most of the social sectors. It has been a reservoir of ideas, concepts, and practices feeding industry, finances, services, medicine, food production, education, …, you name it.

As the potential of the technique, science has made possible all revolutions that raised our life expectancy forty years in the last century, disproved generation after generation of neo-Malthusians, and (on a dark note) brought us to the edge of self-annihilation a few times.

But as scientists, we don’t need to pretend everything we do is going to be applied somewhere (as we often do in our grant proposals and paper introductions): when people ask what your research is useful for, the answer (most of the time) is simply “I don’t know.”

Who would guess that investing a quarter of a million dollars from taxpayers on the research of rats liking their babies would end up saving five billion dollars for the health system?

Science works in mysterious ways…

3. Science is qualified expenditure

Finally, the third reason to invest in science: science is qualified expenditure. If the other two reasons for investing in science are just obvious, this third one is often neglected in spite of its importance.

Every aspect of the scientific enterprise—public education, scientific training, labs setting up, conferences organization, papers publication, patent registration, journalistic popularization—involves, directly and indirectly, a large number of qualified workers: scientists, teachers, engineers, technicians, editors, journalists, bureaucrats.

Each cent invested in science immediately returns to society under the form of qualified expenditure on products and services with a high aggregated value, improving the production and working standards, even when the scientific output is null.

And these are good news to the pragmatics: investing in science creates jobs, high-level well-payed jobs in the whole production chain.

MB

  • This post is a revised version of a text first published in my former blog Much Bigger Outside on January 4, 2014.