Subject: Re: Tom W. Bell paper
From: <stephen@xemacs.org>
Date: Mon, 4 Sep 2006 14:17:17 +0900

simo writes:
 > On Sat, 2006-09-02 at 14:26 -0700, Thomas Lord wrote:
 > > simo wrote:
 > > > Can you make a few examples of costly base research that has been
 > > > "privately" funded in the past 2000 years?

Basic research need not be costly.  Even in particle physics the
expense of most current basic research is pencils, papers, and caviar
at conferences.  Sure, every decade or so we need to spend another USD
100 billion to get to the next order of magnitude of energy, but as I
understand it most of the progress actually occurs because people are
trying to explain phenomena observed in the last round (and often
several rounds back).  To eliminate bad theory requires that new
accelerator, but the science itself is done basically with pencil and
paper.

In fact, an awful lot of basic research is funded purely privately, in
the sense that a bunch of theoretical geniuses take whopping big pay
cuts to work at university, or even private research institutes.
Einstein's research was all privately funded in this sense, it was a
avocation for him until the world decided it couldn't afford to let
him restrict it to merely a hobby.  He's not the only one.

 > Usually what I really see is that it is divided at 50%: the public gets
 > the bills and the private gets the profits :-)

A totally uninteresting observation, in fact the only one you can
possibly make based on ordinary financial reports.

 > [Fusion] is not the only field where state put an awful lot of
 > money in fundamental research (which is not product driven by
 > definition).

Huh?  Fusion research is very much product-driven.  It gets as much
attention as it does for purely product-oriented reasons.  Just
because that product is decades in the future doesn't mean fusion
research is not primarily driven by the product of fusion power.  And
the projects funded are greatly biased by application.  Fusion
researchers bitch about this all the time (or at least my roommates in
1981 did, and they were a lot farther from a product than we are today
:-).

 > > You also make a mistake if you are saying that product orientation
 > > is antithetical to "fundamental" research.

 > It is antithetical by definition, it's not me the think it is.

What Tom said.  The funding seems to be empirically constant-sum and
in that sense funding for projects claiming to be basic and that for
projects claiming to be product-oriented are inherently antithetical.
Big whup, we live in a finite world.

Anybody who actually works in research, development, or engineering
knows that there are 5-second periods of leisure in any project, and
during such periods, the imagination runs free and basic research gets
done.  That's the nature of creative thought.

So the question is "what is the balance going to be?"  Can we provide
for 10-second breaks, or even sabbatical years?  You certainly can
skew effort (especially reporting effort) in the direction of one or
the other by changing funding priorities, but the two kinds of
research inherently go hand-in-hand.

So the real problems with product orientation is not that basic
research doesn't get done at all, it's (1) that far too much of it is
done, because every team working on a product is replicating the same
basic research that nobody gets rewarded for reporting, and (2)
there's a bias against doing basic research that is less directly
related to any ongoing applied research.  (1) is obviously bad, but
(2) is not.  (I believe it's bad, but that's quite possibly because my
own research is underfunded IMO. :-)

Steve