On Gravity Waves and the 1%

The news this week has been all about the discovery of gravity waves and the great triumphs of modern physics to understand the origin of the universe. There is rather less news on the critical ecological problems of the Earth – of agricultural sustainability, biodiversity collapse, pollution, climate change – not to mention the long recognized economic problems of poverty and inequality, globally and within our own countries. All of these issues converge to the questions of resource allocations by our governments that have failed to assess priorities on many fronts. Many see this but have little power to change the system that is continually moving to save and improve the fortunes of the 1% to the detriment of most people.

In scientific funding there has always been a large bias in favor of the physical sciences, as I have commented on previously, and the question is how this might be publicized to produce  a better world. I suggest a few rules for scientific funding decisions both by governments and by private investors.

Rule 1: For maximizing scientific utility for the biosphere including humans, we require a mix of basic and applied science in every field. Whether this mix should be 50:50, 30:70, or 70:30 should be an item for extended discussion with the implicit assumption that it could differ in different areas of science.

Rule 2: Each major area of science should articulate its most important issues that must be addressed in the short term and the long term (>50 years). For biodiversity, as an example, the most important short term problem is to minimize extinctions while the most important long term problem might be to maintain genetic variability in populations.

Rule 3: The next step is most critical and perhaps most controversial: What are the consequences for the Earth and its human population if the most important issue in any particular science is not solved or achieved? If the required experiments or observations can be delayed for 30 (or 50) years, what will it matter?

If we could begin to lay out this agenda for science, we could start a process of ranking the importance of each of the sciences for funding in the present and in the long term. At the present time this ranking process is partly historical and partly based on extreme promises of future scenarios or products that are of dubious validity. There is no need to assume that all will agree, and I am sure that several steps would have to be designated to involve not only young and older scientists but also members of the business community and the public at large.

If this agenda works, I doubt that we would spend quite so much money on nuclear physics and astronomy and we might spend more money on ocean science, carbon budgets, and sustainable agricultural research. This agenda would mean that powerful people could not push their point of view in science funding quite so freely without being asked for justification. And perhaps when budgets are tight for governments and businesses, the first people on the firing line for redundancy will not be environmental scientists trying their best to maintain the health of the Earth for future generations.

So I end with 2 simple questions: Could gravity waves have waited another 100 years for discovery? What is there that cannot wait?

(Finally, an apology. I failed to notice that on a number of recent blogs the LEAVE A REPLY option was not available to the reader. This was inadvertent and somehow got deleted with a new version of the software. I should have noticed it and it is now corrected on all blogs.)

2 thoughts on “On Gravity Waves and the 1%

  1. Markus Eichhorn

    While I agree on the general point that blue-skies research shouldn’t monopolise research funding to the exclusion of applied work on urgent priorities, I can’t agree on the prescription here. This is despite being an ecologist who would have much to gain if this attitude towards research funding were taken. There are two counter-arguments:

    1. Although a ranking system such as the one you propose would be ostensibly fair and reasonable, it would have perverse consequences. Consider the outcome of using the same approach for medical research. Should we focus our funding on the diseases that cause the greatest number of deaths, or the most suffering? By doing so we would neglect many other fronts. In medicine, as in conservation, no problem is ever truly ‘solved’. Even if all the resource of medical research were thrown into cancer treatment, it wouldn’t go away, and nor will extinction. Investment carries an asymptotic return and a distributed funding policy is likely to achieve more progress overall.

    2. In ecology we frequently bemoan the utilitarian view of research funding which favours applications and economic outputs over genuine discovery. In defence of pure research we often invoke the distributed and unexpected gains that arise and can seldom be predicted at the outset. This is perhaps more true in physics than the other sciences; it seems churlish to complain when someone else gets to do blue-skies research.

    If we applied the ‘could this wait 100 years’ test to most research, it would never have been done. There is a biodiversity crisis — I don’t doubt it — but if we spend all our efforts on bailing then we’re likely to crash the boat. I’m glad that gravitational waves have been detected, and in 50 years perhaps someone (it’s unlikely to be us) will look back and discern impacts that we could never have anticipated.

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  2. jeffollerton

    I have to disagree you on this, Markus: the argument that Charley is setting out is in large part one about proportion of funding allocated between fields, not within fields (which I think is more the perspective from which you’re arguing). Allocating money to priority science following a consideration of science across the board seems to me a very sensible suggestion. I’d love it if we discovered evidence of life on Mars or elsewhere in the solar system; but I’d happily forego that pleasure if it meant more funding for urgent environmental research AND practical action.

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