As scientists, we have constantly to justify ourselves. People ask what is our research useful for. It is a fair question – as most of time public funds are involved – but it is a poor question. Science is more than being useful for something. Here are three reasons to invest in science, even “useless” science.
My resolution for this year is not to read any text with a counting number for a title. I can’t help myself, I have to start the year with such a lame title. But lazy as I am, I will only count to three: the three reasons to invest in science.
1. Science is the theory of the real
The first and most obvious reason to invest in science is that science is the theory of the real. (I borrowed this expression from Heidegger, but the reference ends here.) Science produces the concepts and discourses with which secular society interprets the world. It is science that allows us to tell that the world exists at 13.7 billion years, that all beings evolved from a common ancestor, that our bodies are made of atoms and that our minds are not ghosts manipulating puppets.
Romantic people often complain that science takes the beauty away from whatever it touches. It is a misconception that holds only if you mistake ignorance for beauty. Look, for instance, at the amazing darkness of the night sky. To know that it is dark because the universe is expanding only adds to our feeling of beauty and astonishment, not the opposite.
But I confess I am tired of the copy-and-paste short-sentences collection of scientists in the Discovery Channel. I miss the magnificence of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos under the sound of Bach, Vivaldi and Vangelis.
2. Science is the potential of the technique
The second reason to invest in science – less romantic, but not less important – is that science is the potential of the technique. Science obviously connects itself to all social sectors. It has been a reservoir of ideas, concepts and practices feeding industry, finances, services, medicine, food production, education, …, you name it.
As the potential of the technique, science has made possible all revolutions that raised our life expectancy 40 years in the last century, disproved generation after generation of Neo-Malthusians, and, on a dark note, brought us to the edge of self-annihilation a few times.
But as scientists we do not need to lie (as we often do in our proposals and paper introductions): when people ask what your research is useful for, the answer (most of time) is simply “I don’t know”. Einstein was not thinking of Blu-Ray players when he developed the theory of the laser. In the other way around, Planck had no idea that he would trigger a major revolution in basic physics, when he was looking for more efficient light bulbs. Science works in mysterious ways…
3. Science is qualified consumption
Finally, the third reason to invest in science: science is qualified consumption. The scientific enterprise, in every aspect – education of new scientists, set up of labs, organization of conferences, technical publications, register of patents, journalistic popularization – involve a large number of qualified workers: scientists, technicians, editors, journalists, bureaucrats.
If the other two reasons are just obvious, this third one is often neglected in spite of its importance. Every penny invested in science immediately returns to society under the form of qualified consumption. And these are good news to the pragmatics: investing in science, even the most pure and abstract, create jobs, good jobs in the whole productive chain.
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- The American’s Pen and the Soviet’s Pencil
- 5 reasons we need to fund frivolous science (gravityswings.wordpress.com)
- Not convinced that science adds beauty to our perception of the world? Check Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins.
- Also tired of Discovery Channel? There are nice things happening around. If you still don’t know, check, for instance, Minute Physics or VSauce on YouTube:
- And if you are too young and have no idea about what Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is, check: