The need for basic research

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The Natural Sciences Council sponsored a faculty panel Friday highlighting the importance of public funding for investigative research. The group noted that the National Science Foundation, the federal organization responsible for disbursing billions of dollars per year in research grant funding, has seen its budget cut in recent years. The NSF said the reduced funding will manifest itself in reduced grant funding for basic, investigative science research in favor of research with more direct applications.

The panelists included some of the University’s most distinguished faculty members in the College of Natural Sciences. All of them rightly emphasized the value of basic research. A primary function of organizations such as universities and the NSF — that is, government-sponsored, taxpayer-funded groups — is to overcome the private-sector prejudice against investment in projects that bear fruit only over a long-term horizon.

This public funding model is organized to distribute the high costs of conducting this type of high-risk, high-reward research that the private sector is hesitant to engage in because of the uncertain financial ramifications. Basic research is often the starting point for commercial startups and its utility is often recognized only long after it has been completed. Without a way to distribute the cost in the short-term, these long-term benefits may be lost, which would certainly do more harm to society than would refusing to fund scientists adequately in the immediate future.

The value of basic research can be hard to understand. Modeling inheritance patterns in fruit flies may not seem like the most relevant type of research done here, but the principles discovered through basic research have formed the foundation and continue to influence the development of more commercial, applied research.