FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Decline of Pure Science

At a time when our destiny is increasingly determined by science and technology, our commitment to research and development of pure science endeavors is dwindling. Today, those who control R&D funding increasingly insist that scientific research have an immediate payoff. Nothing wrong with that, but much has been learned from exploration for exploration's sake.

Science writer Rick Weiss laments this sad state of affairs in the Washington Post:

Crouched today in a defensive posture, we are suffering from a lack of confidence and a shriveled sense of the optimism that once urged us to reach boldly into the unknown. Equally important, we seem to have forgotten that many good things come just from being open to them, without a formed idea of what they are or how they should come out. We are losing, in short, one of the oldest traditions in science: to simply observe, almost monk-like, with an open mind and without a plan.

Weiss blames much of this diminished interest on a post-9/11 state of fear and the fact that science is an easy target for politicians looking to cut budgets. Libertarians will counter that it's not government's role to fund science, but federal programs such as DARPA have yielded immeasurable benefits to the military and others, giving us the Internet among other things.

The reason, however may run deeper. Culturally, we demand immediate gratification -- a by-product of our capitalist instincts and our increasingly shortened attention spans. Anything that doesn't pay immediate and measurable benefits is quickly dismissed as a failure. In this kind of a world, where can pure science -- which can take years if not decades to generate a return on investment -- find a role?