The value of asking

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DANIEL MCCARTHY, SENIOR EDITORAre certain scientific discoveries inevitable? Had Einstein not developed the general theory of relativity first, would some other physicist have eventually laid claim to it? Had Alexander Fleming not observed the moldy petri dish, would someone else have pioneered penicillin?

Such questions are compelling to speculate about. But a more practical line of inquiry might ask whether certain discoveries can be predicted, or, even better: Can their potential returns be calculated? Pharmaceutical companies evidently think so. They routinely invest between $1 billion and $2 billion to apply a largely trial-and-error approach to finding gold among an estimated 20 million organic compounds.

Sometimes the value of research, however, cannot be measured in coin. The James Webb Space Telescope launched in December with a price tag of $10 billion — just to field certain questions about distant planets, the life cycle of stars, and the nature of the early universe. Profitability clearly wasn’t the impetus for the Webb Telescope itself. Even so, many of the manufacturing and component technologies innovated to support the telescope’s 10-year development will still reap commercial returns.

The point is that the results of scientific endeavor are often as hard to predict as how much return they’ll yield on investment. But it is almost axiomatic that funding of basic and applied research almost always proves to be a winning proposition.

Recognition of this fact recently helped to successfully usher two separate bills — the America COMPETES Act and the United States Innovation and Competition Act — respectively through the U.S. House and Senate. Both bills are now with a congressional conference committee tasked with reconciling them into a piece of legislation that will bolster the U.S.’s competitiveness in science and technology. Central to the new legislation is the creation of a new technology directorate within the National Science Foundation. One remaining point of negotiation, however, is the level of funding, autonomy, and scope that this tech directorate shall wield as it maps the future direction of basic and applied research in the U.S.

It’s an important debate, one as anxiety-provoking as the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. The levels of funding and flexibility of the tech directorate could become independent bargaining chips when, ideally, maximizing either or both would almost certainly yield greater returns to the quality of life and economic competitiveness for future U.S. generations. Both chambers of Congress recognized the value of scientific research when each passed their version of this bill. Hopefully, legislators will continue to see the mutual political, economic, and competitive benefits that fully funding scientific research returns.

Published: March 2022

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