The Biden administration has promised a dedicated and comprehensive reliance on science as it crafts the nation’s policies for the next few years. New sources from both sides of the political spectrum agree that the President’s selections for advisors include the nation’s preeminent thinkers in the areas of climate change, medical research, and general science. As a new national science strategy is being drafted, a similar dedication to open-mindedness and flexibility should be included. Scientific research and discovery serve many purposes.
A quick perusal of PhD literature on the topic seems to coalesce around 3 or 4 major purposes for science. First, the point of any research endeavor is to satisfy the researcher’s curiosity. Here, I would add the caveat that it can also serve to satisfy the financier’s curiosity on the subject matter. Second, exploration and explanation allow researchers to learn more about a topic, explain and observe new phenomena, and determine if further exploring or explaining (research) is necessary. Lastly, another purpose of research is application. The findings can be applied to existing technology or science or may simply be utilized in advancing the next stage research. To that end, should the conduct of science be strategic? I personally believe the strategic nature of science is inherent in the endeavor of scientific undertakings.
Albert Michelson was the first American to win a Nobel Prize in physics. After serving in the Navy for a few years after graduation from the Naval Academy, Michelson returned to Annapolis to teach in the physics department. On one sunny afternoon, Michelson decided to recreate a particular experiment with his students that aimed to provide an approximation of the speed of light. In constructing the apparatus, he found several areas in which he could improve upon the experiment. The physics department was unable to fund his experiment, but an undeterred Michelson financed most of the research personally and reached out to his father in order to scrounge up the necessary remaining funds. A few months later, he successfully determined the most accurate value for the speed of light at that time. His research enabled the subsequent research of some the greatest physicists of all time, including Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity. Michelson pursued the research because he understood the ramifications of identifying this ultimate upper limit to velocity and the impact it could have on the world of science.
It is unlikely that the discovery and refinement of the speed of the light value could be found in any science strategy from the late 19th or early 20th century, but some scientists allow their own strategy and curiosity to drive their research. This sort of independent thought should be incorporated into any higher-level strategy that hopes to advance society. Any successful strategy, whether it is a military, business, or otherwise, must be adaptable. Battlefield conditions can change in instant. World markets and even storefront patronage can evaporate instantly in the face of a global pandemic. Why would a “science strategy” be any different?
The federal government spends 37% of its research budget on research development, taking previously gained knowledge and turning it into new or improved products or processes. 32% of the research dollars go to basic research. This number should be encouraging for science enthusiasts everywhere. Funding basic research at such a high level shows the importance in advancing the pure scientific body of knowledge.1 The business sector funds basic research at about 70% of what the federal government does, but doubles government spending in applied research and spends more than 650% more in development. Science is largely contextual, and if it aims to advance human society, then these proportions are likely not too far off from some theoretical idealistic spending ratio. Lastly, another approach to consider at the Congressional and agency is level is a bit more freedom for appropriations transfers and reprogramming. Let’s give the scientists the flexibility needed to execute a purer, less restricted pursuit of explaining the unknown.