Reflections on science and the human endeavor

In the pandemic summer of 2020 I found myself introspecting about something important to me — why do I do science? In an attempt to answer this question, I dove into the history of science, science funding, and my childhood, and wrote this essay.

This article first appeared in Economic and Political Weekly.

For most scientists, their chosen profession is the result of doggedly pursuing their intellectual curiosity through their childhoods and young adulthoods. This is certainly true in fundamental research, but arguably also in applied research. While intellectual curiosity is excellent motivation, as we grow into adults, faced with the prospect of spending almost half of our waking hours on our professions, it’s only natural to wonder how our work affects the world. What does fundamental research in the natural sciences do outside of tickling the intellect? How do we reconcile our evolved worldviews as adults with the impact that scientific research has on the world?

It helps to begin by going back to where it all starts. As kids, any inclination we show towards science and math is encouraged, even celebrated. More often than not, this continues through our time in school and beyond. But good luck if you were instead interested in music or sports, or (god forbid) art! The pursuit of scientific knowledge is viewed as a noble endeavor just as it is. This may have something to do with how the vocations associated with science are relatively lucrative, but perhaps it’s more deep-rooted than that. Even outside of the trappings of the modern world, it would benefit a tribe of people to have a scientifically skilled population — the problem-solving ability would help tide over daily challenges, scientific insights could potentially heal deadly wounds and diseases, and inspire tools that make peoples’ lives easier, and technology and weaponry that could defend the population against attacks from outsiders. Clearly, the overwhelming motivation for society to support science (morally and monetarily) is all of these things, rather than for an abstract pursuit of knowledge and beauty. Scientific research is deeply intertwined with peoples’ lives in a very utilitarian manner.

These abstract notions seem to translate into how things work in the real world. For example, consider federally funded scientific research in the United States. More than half the science budget is allocated to defense, about a quarter to health, around 5% each to energy and fundamental science. If the overwhelming dominance of defense in scientific research funding is surprising, it shouldn’t be — defense has had a close association with science from time immemorial. Galileo Galilei, considered by many as the father of the scientific method, invented the telescope with defense funding, recommending to the Doge of Venice that it be used by the country’s army and navy as an instrument of war. Naturally then, scientific research associated with defense skyrockets during times of war. For example, at the peak of the Cold War, almost three-quarters of all scientific research in the United States was funded by defense, before the collapse of the Soviet Union vaporized this reliable stream of science funding. This is certainly not a one-way street — scientists are well aware of the value of their work in the context of defense and leverage it to lobby for increased funding.

Galileo showing the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope. (Giuseppe Bertini, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

While citizens do not necessarily have a say in the allocation of research funds, it would not be incorrect to say that in a democracy, it is representative of what a majority of the population sees as a reasonable order of priorities. The United States spends the largest fraction of its scientific research budget on defense, with France coming a distant second, at close to 30%. At the other end of the scale is Japan, at less than 4%. Interestingly, nationalist motivations often drive scientific research even in non-defense areas. A great example is the space race from the Cold War era, but one also sees a similar competition today in achieving dominance in the domains of artificial intelligence and quantum information science. The actual research involved can often be quite fundamental, but the lavish funding comes with an eye on the prize — leadership in technology that may determine the power structures of tomorrow.

Another phenomenon that has transformed our lives — the spread of the COVID-19 virus and the current global pandemic — has led to an urgent, cooperative scientific effort with some of the highest stakes in recent memory. Even as the issue of equitable access plays out around the world, the record turnaround time and high efficacy of vaccines developed during the pandemic unequivocally highlight the enormous value of scientific research to society. While vaccine development falls under the umbrella of applied research, it is often argued that it was cumulative fundamental research in related areas over the past decade that ultimately enabled the success of this effort. As such, the study of infectious diseases and associated topics are set to be among the most lucrative research fields in the coming decade.

“But after all, what use is it?”

“Why, sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it.”

Clearly, the wants and needs of society profoundly influence the kind of science that is done, which in turn shapes the expectations that society has of science. I am reminded of English scientist Michael Faraday’s response to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone’s apparent dismissal of one of his scientific discoveries by asking “But after all, what use is it?” Faraday replied, “Why, sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it.”

Understanding how science fits into the workings of society allows us to make informed choices on the topics we research, the funding organizations that we are answerable to, and the subsequent impact we have on the world, in a manner that meshes with our worldviews. There are, however, a couple of challenges with doing this. First, not all science is equally “lucrative.” If the primary driving force for society to support science is its utility in solving critical problems, building the economy, and national security, it is then inevitable that some subjects receive more funding than others. Unsurprisingly then, it is common practice for scientists to apply for funding in “lucrative” fields, and then essentially moonlight on the less lucrative research problems that they are interested in. This brings us to the second challenge, one that perhaps every scientist has faced in some form — the research topics we are intellectually motivated by may be very different from those that might have the kind of real world impact we would like. While there isn’t a cookie-cutter resolution to this dilemma, being informed on the downstream impact that different fundamental research problems can have is a good place to start. Eventually, as with any field, to function effectively as a scientist, it is necessary to not let rigid ideals impede real progress.

The urge to do science, inquire, explore, and make sense of the world around us is as basic a human instinct as anything else. The advancements (and destruction) we create by these endeavors are as much a reflection of human nature as they are of the character of science. That the conquests of science are so interwoven with the needs and desires of our society is then altogether unsurprising. Being aware of this interconnectedness can make us better researchers and better members of our tribe, whatever that might mean for each of us.

I gratefully acknowledge Manasa Gade for editing my writing, and Venkatraman Gopalan and Mukesh Manjunath for their perceptive comments on early drafts of this article.

Doctoral student at Penn State, research at the intersection of physics and materials.

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