Subject: Re: Tom W. Bell paper
From: simo <>
Date: Mon, 04 Sep 2006 10:05:11 -0400

On Mon, 2006-09-04 at 14:17 +0900, wrote:
> 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.

I never implied that basic research was always costly, just that when it
is costly, usually states fund it not privates.

> 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.

I can't define that private funding, probably we need first to agree at
what point we exit the personal sphere and call something private
funding. For me one of the condition to speak of private funding in
basic research is when someone get money to work on something not
project oriented and does not produce money by itself. May be this is a
too narrow definition and I know in realty you tend to have mixed
situations where you partly do basic research and partly product
oriented research, but I do not think of one own hobby as private

> 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
> :-).

Well, you got a point here, but we are still not really getting to what
I call project oriented research,m while fusion is a goal, there is
still lot of basic research to be done to enable engineers to finally
get to that goal, that's why dates are "15 years from now" since at
least 20 years ago. That's because we are optimistic and there is a bet
that all missing basic research will be done in 10 years or so, and then
in 5 years you will be able to actually build a plant. But this research
is still not there, that's why I'd rather call it basic and not product

Even searching a better theory than relativity has a goal but I'd not
call it product oriented :)

>  > > 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.

While basic research needs indeed creativity, creativity alone does not
account for all the basic research, hard work is needed too, it is not
something you do in the coffe break.

> 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.

They can go hand in hand, and they often not, take astronomy, sure
astronomers know what they need and probably drive some product oriented
research by their requests, and some product oriented research enable
them to do more basic research, but I am not sure I'd call it going
hand-in-hand; astronomers do not go and build their own stuff anymore
since long.

> 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. :-)

I think that (1) we need to agree on what is basic research then :) and
(2) if you talk of the world or USA alone.