Wednesday, November 25, 2015

In defense of curiosity-motivated research

I was prompted to write this post by three recent events. First, I read an article by Angelika Amon who made A case for more curiosity-driven basic research. She is the recipient of the 2015 ASCB [American Society for Cell Biology] Women in Cell Biology Sandra K. Masur Senior Leadership Award.

She says,
While conducting research to improve the lives of others is certainly a worthy motivation, it is not the main reason why I get up very early in the morning to go to the lab. To me, gaining an understanding of a basic principle in the purest Faustian terms is what I find most rewarding and exciting.

... For me, having a career in curiosity-driven basic research has been immensely rewarding. It is my hope that basic research remains one of the pillars of the American scientific enterprise, attracting the brightest young minds for generations to come. We as a community can help to make this a reality by telling people what we do and highlighting the importance of our work to their lives.
I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment although I would emphasize that the general public needs to understand that the important result of basic research is knowledge, and knowledge for its own sake is important. It's certainly far better than ignorance.

This kind of scholarly activity—curiosity motivated research—is the backbone of activity in the universities. At least it used to be. I still think that universities should stand up and defend the search for knowledge.

The second stimulus was an acknowledgement I recently stumbled across at the end of a paper by Ford Doolittle from 1982 (Doolittle, 1982).
And I' m most grateful to the Medical Research Council and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada for providing us with the funds to pursue our sometimes arcane interests without hindrance.
The old MRC has become CIHR. It's hard to imagine any scientist writing such an acknowledgement today since CIHR is notorious for hindering basic curiosity-motivated research [see Support basic research with new leaders at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)].

Not only have the funding agencies abandoned curiosity-motivated research, so have the universities and that brings me to the third event. My university, the University of Toronto, has been trying to direct health research for several decades. It does this by preferentially funding and supporting research in designated areas that are likely to become the beneficiaries of substantial donations and/or support from the private sector. This emphasis often goes hand-in-hand with government wishes and the subverted goals of the funding agencies they control.

The latest example is a new research facility across the street from the main campus in a brand-new, expensive, building that's part of MaRS [U of T expands research facilities in new partnership with MaRS].
The first U of T groups to move over to the new MaRS tower are the Medicine by Design initiative, the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research, the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, and the ARCNet advanced research computing and data analytics centre. Other research groups from the Faculty of Medicine will move to MaRS to enhance existing networks in regenerative medicine, drug discovery and infectious disease.
The idea here is to take successful, well-funded, research groups from different campus-based basic science departments and group them together in units that focus on, for example, drug discovery and infectious diseases. They will get all the perks of a new building and new research facilities and enhanced prestige and recognition.

Meanwhile, those researchers working on basic curiosity-motivated projects like Drosophila development, the targeting of cellular RNAs, the survival of mitochondria, theoretical investigations of protein folding, the structure of glycoproteins, and protein turnover in yeast and bacteria—to name just a few—will remain in a 50 year old building that looks more like a prison than a modern research facility. The message is loud and clear. Curiosity-motivated basic researchers are second class scientists unless they just happen to be working on projects that Faculty administrators think are important

That's not how universities should behave. I expect university leaders and administrators to stand up for the search for knowledge and promote the rights of researchers to go where curiosity takes them. That's what academic freedom is all about.

I think you can make a case that grouping like-minded researchers together in specific goal-oriented research groups may not be the most successful strategy in a university environment even if you concede that it's up to universities to pick and choose research priorities. It reminds me of a discussion I had with Janet Stemwedel a few years ago. The discussion started off on the topic of ethics then changed to the difference between "science" and "technology." It applies also to the difference between curiosity-motivated research and goal-oriented research.

Is ‘what is this good for?’ a question to be discouraged?
Teaching Ethics in Science: Science v Technology
A worker in basic scientific research is motivated by a driving curiosity about the unknown. When his explorations yield new knowledge, he experiences the satisfaction of those who first attain the summit of a mountain or the upper reaches of a river flowing through unmapped territory. Discovery of truth and understanding of nature are his objectives. His professional standing among his fellows depends upon the originality and soundness of his work. Creativeness in science is of a cloth with that of the poet or painter.
National Science Foundation (USA) Annual Report 1953
I'm not arguing that scientists who are interested in drug discovery or infectious diseases aren't motivated by curiosity just like the rest of us. What I'm arguing is that it should not be the university's business to reward those whose curiosity leads them in one direction and penalize those who are curious about something else. That's sending a strong message and the message is "go in this direction" if you want the perks. That's not compatible with supporting curiosity-motivated research and the quest for knowledge in its purest form.

Maybe the university needs to stop supporting curiosity-motivated research? That's worth debating but in my experience debate is not what university administrators want to hear. It's rare that professors and researchers are invited to discuss the decisions made in the President's Office or the Dean's Office even though those decisions will seriously affect their lives and their careers.

Why can't we at least discuss these issues rather than read about them in the newspaper?

Doolittle, W.F. (1982) Evolutionary molecular biology: where is it going? Canadian Journal of Biochemistry, 60:83-90.


  1. I think the whole "basic science" vs. "applied science" trope is pretty unhelpful and the thing is, everybody seems to think that *they* are the under-appreciated people doing the "basic science" and it is those unworthy guys over there that are the well funded "applied types". Case in point. I've recently joined the intramural research program of the National Cancer Institute. Clearly, you must say, that's "applied research" -- after all, it deals with the mammalian immune system, cancer, and the microbiomes. And yet my colleagues all consider themselves "basic researchers" because they define "applied research" as what clinicians who actually work with human cancer patients do.

    There is this weird pride in not being "applied" that I suspect derives from the 19th century upper-class idea that useful work is shameful and is what the lower classes do.

    1. There is a basic science though. I go out like a 19th century naturalist and catch microcritters previously unknown to science and describe them (and find them a phylogenetic home with next gen sequencing and phylogenomics, just as Darwin himself once did ;-) ) My labmate is using modern tools to reorganise a group of microbes that's a mess mostly because no one has yet cared about them, and likely never will. Ultimately, all this would eventually trickle down (in a way that actually works) to more practical applications -- sure, my main thesis bug has exactly ZERO socio-economic relevance in the human world, but it will answer some questions about the evolution of a certain microbial group, and thus help answer questions about the evolution of anaerobic metabolism, for example -- but the likes of the House Science Committee in the US would have a field day with our kind of research.

      There really is a basic science, and there are people who dislike it. There's probably a very wide grey area, as you mentioned, but there still exist those of us who do things that are truly, sincerely detached from economic and medical demands. And the moment that becomes impossible around the globe, I leave science -- might as well make some actual cash and not constantly struggle with money if I must whore myself out to industry anyway =)

    2. But that's what I do as well! The study of the microbiome is mostly microbial phylogeny and ecology. I used to do it from ocean samples, but now I'm looking at samples from skin and gut.

  2. A lot of the basic research is in fact extremely "useful", it's just that it is so deeply important that the stupidity and ignorance of the vast majority of people primarily concerned with economic growth and stuff of the sort prevents them from ever grasping its importance.

    The most important kind of knowledge is the understanding of the mechanisms that are keeping us alive, and by "us" we should not just understand our individual bodies, far more important is to understand "us" as the species as a whole.

    And that means understanding things like the climate system and the biogeochemical cycles of the planet, the causes of past mass extinctions, etc. Which all involve the study of "obscure" microorganisms with no obvious economic relevance.

    Last year we had parliamentary elections in Bulgaria and a new government. Shortly after, the new education minister decided to pander to societal sentiments (which are that high-school students are overburdened with too much obsolete information -- totally untrue but many people do think that) and gave foraminiferans as an example of something that was in the curriculum (just a couple sentences in fact) but nobody really needed to know about.

    Well, the burial of carbon by foraminiferans and coccolithophores is a key reason why we exist today -- CO2 was an order of magnitude higher in the Cambrian before they appeared but has since then declined in large part because it has been sequestered through the formation and then burial of their shells. Given that the Sun's luminosity has been increasing ever since it formed, had carbon not been buried by biological activity, the planet would have suffered a runaway greenhouse effect and we would not exist today.

    Which looks like a quite an important thing to know... But try bringing up the words "formaninferan" and "haptophyte" as something that should be studied and people should know about...

    Even more important -- a popular in recent years hypothesis for the cause of many of the great mass extinctions in the past is that the ocean went anoxic due to extreme global warming, which meant that it got filled with sulfate reducing bacteria and started bubbling off H2S on a massive scale, which finished off whatever the global warming had started in terms of killing off species. It doesn't even have to be true to be something that every single human being on the planet should understand very well given what we are doing right now with the climate of the planet and what the potential consequences are -- the possibility is frightening enough.

    But how many people would consider studying "exotic" microbes and their metabolisms vitally important?

    I can give many other examples of that sort.

    But most crucially -- science properly understood (as a way of knowing the world) does not just provide ways to grow the economy, it tells us whether we can and should try to grow it. The answer is that this is the last thing we should be doing and it derives from so fundamental findings of science that advocating for unfettered economic growth (which is something that every politician does and pretty much every "defender" of science does, and that no major scientific body has openly objected to) is exactly on the same level as young earth creationism as a denial of basic reality. However, it has never been actively fought against by scientists outside of some fringe environmentally concerned voices, because it was very convenient to have science as the driving force of that expansion -- while the system was rapidly expanding that not only provided prestige and funding, but there were also enough resources to fund curiosity-driven research too. Now it's no longer expanding but the growth beast still has to be fed and accordingly it's the curiosity-driven research that's getting axed first. Of course, it won't end there:

    1. There is amazing amount of hypocrisy involved in the idea of thinking economic growth is inherently bad while doing scientific research. Where exactly do you think the tax dollars for research grants come from? It's a bit like a vegetarian working for a sausage factory.

    2. ????


      We're not talking about opinions here, it's an objective fact that economic growth has to end (and in fact, for a while, even reverse), if civilization is to survive.

      After that I don't see why a steady-state economy would not be able to support research. The money that goes to it is a tiny fraction of current GDP anyway.

    3. No, it really isn't an "objective fact" (it assumes that all economic growth has to be tied to additional physical production, which is a bit of an odd assumption in a world where the service and information sectors are gaining against manufacturing), but that isn't the point. The point is research money has to increase over time, not only because science is getting more expensive (Darwin may have gotten things published by watching earthworms, but his modern earthworm researchers would probably have to do RNA-Seq on the worms or something to get something published today), but also because the scientific pool is increasing. Each PI produces many graduate students, which some fraction end up being a PI in turn producing their own graduate students. This just couldn't work without an expanding economy.

    4. 1) It is an objective fact because of this pesky thing called laws of thermodynamics. Nothing happens without expenditure of energy. And, of course, if we follow the logic of economics and could in fact completely decouple economic growth from physical inputs, then the relative cost of energy would eventually approach zero. With all the consequences. Which is clearly nonsensical and tells you all you need to know about the viability of infinite economic growth.

      2) That academia is a Ponzi scheme is a well-known problem on its own. One that is explicitly discussed in that link I provided.

      So I don't see how you can talk about hypocrisy.

      P.S. RNA-seq is dirt cheap these days so I don't see how that's an argument about anything

    5. 1) Moving the relative cost of energy to approach zero is hardly nonsensical -- that's kind of the ultimate incentive for sustainable energy production -- "electricity too cheap to meter" as we were once promised by atomic power but never got. Yes, you could claim that eventually we could exceed the total available amount of solar and wind power available on Earth and/or use up all resources needed to manufacture solar panels or turbines, but neither are realistic worries within the human time frame.

      2) If you want people to read your article, don't publish it in an journal that has a paywall and not bother to pay the open access fee. Or if you must, don't use the link to the journal site -- link to a copy on your home page.

      P.S. Do you really not see that the issue is about new technologies in general? As one technology gets cheaper, cutting edge science requires the next expensive one.

    6. Georgi MarinovThursday, November 26, 2015 1:03:00 AM
      1) So that means you have no understanding of the energy flows on this planet, their size, where and what they go to, the available means for harvesting them, the efficiency and long-term sustainability of those means, etc.

      2) I don't have a stable home page right now but I can e-mail you the pdf. There aren't many journals that will both publish that kind of article and provide even a minimal visibility for it (in fact I never thought it would get accepted there either). This was the optimal solution (I didn't have $3000 just lying around for that).

      P.S. The issue is not about new technologies. This is extremely stupid, deluded and ultimately suicidal thinking (no offense) -- that there is a technological solution to everything, Some of the most important scientific results of all time tell you what you CANNOT do. Next in line are results concerning what you SHOULD NOT try to do (for example, converting the whole planet into a giant human feeding lot and/or exceeding the carrying capacity of your environment) because the consequences will be very bad. That's the kind of thing that we have in mind when we talk about science as a way of knowing the world being much more important that science as enabler of technological development -- it's not just about manipulating the physical world, much more important is understanding it.

    7. I think the issue is with the notion of economic growth. Economic growth happens when the total value of goods and services increases. That isn't necessarily tied to resource expenditure - you can turn the same amount of wood into a 1000$ table or 120$ worth of toilet paper. The energy expenditure is likely even higher for the toilet paper - though the table takes more man hours. And this holds for most resources. You can take 360g of beef and turn it into 3 4$ quarterpounder or into one well prepared steak for 30$.
      The simple fact is that capitalism started at a time when resources were abundant and the easiest way to achieve growth was to make that available for use as quickly as possible. To facilitate this, states basically removed liabilities for the effects this would have and as a result we now have an economy that makes a lot of cheap things, which fall apart and then need to be reacquired. In other words, we have created conditions that make companies succeed when they do maximal damage. But since this is a situation made through political intervention - and things like limited liability companies are very much created by their legal framework - it can be changed. There is potential for economic growth in using resources in more effective ways. It will only be used, if we stop subsidizing resource use. And we should well consider taxing resource use as a way to pay for the negative effects of that use.
      It's worth noting that this is largely not a technological issue. We know how to make a table that will last generations (obviously there are antique tables that have lasted generations). But we mostly make IKEA tables that last one move or two. And then get a new one. We know why that's the case - a really solid table that will last cost more than 10 cheap ones that won't. And for a large number of people even the cheap table is hard to pay for.

    8. I am afraid this is an overtly optimistic view. In absolute terms the entropic theory of economic value is not true. In practical terms it very much is. In any case, there has never been a real decoupling of economic growth from resource consumption, there has been a change in the strength of the coupling, but that's it. And there can never be economic growth without some increase in resource use, because as I said above, nothing happens without material inputs (have you checked how much energy the internet uses and what the growth projections are?) and even if that could happen, the value of energy and physical inputs would eventually go to zero. Which is an absurdity.

      At some point growth will have to end. When is that going to happen? Have you ever seen a politician or an economist talk about that? No. Instead we have a socio-political system that can only function in a state of perpetual expansion and will collapse when that is no longer possible unless we have prepared an alternative prior to that moment.

      Note that these are all theoretical considerations valid without any reference to the real-life situation.

      While in practice we have those pesky facts about ongoing climate change, unsustainable use of nonrenewable resources (that often quoted observation about how we're using more than one Earth worth of such resources every year) and of humans hogging a gigantic share of the primary productivity of the planet, the ongoing depletion of nonrenewable resources (conventional oil peaked a decade ago), the sixth great mass extinction, population still exploding in many countries despite rosy projections for imminent global demographic transition, etc. etc. Which all suggest that the moment to end growth (of the global population and the economy) was actually decades in the past relative to the present moment.

    9. It would be an optimistic view if I thought I likely that the types of political changes that would need to happen could actually be implemented. Given how hard it has been and still is to even implement minimal changes on greenhouse gas emissions - and that's a case where we are looking at an imminent threat of unprecedented proportions - I do not think that the political will to enact these changes is there. In the short term enacting these changes would produce turmoil - if the economy is akin to an evolving system we are talking about changes so radical that the best analogue would be mass extinctions. Most of the large companies that exist right now would be wiped out and some time later a new economical ecosystem would emerge. How many companies are in a position where adequate pricing of their externalities would not result in them collapsing?

    10. Oh, I don't have any real hope that anything will change -- civilizational collapse is at this point locked in the system and there is no practical way to prevent it. The momentum of ignorance is just too large and there is no force in the world that can stop it. The question is in what state we emerge after it's all over...

    11. Okay, so, you won't ever upgrade your computer, buy the latest sequencer or mass spectrometer, or new instrument we can't even imagine right now for your lab ever again? Saying "there isn't a technological solution to everything" is a pretty empty statement -- science progresses by the application of new technologies, which in turn only exist for rather selfish economic reasons by manufactures (Illumina, Beckman, et al are hardly altruistic), and are only possible by previous scientific advances. "Basic science", technology, and the economy are absolutely intertwined.

  3. As a pendant to the above exchange I'll just mention what I read somewhere: To sustain the current level of exploitation of the planet we need an additional planet.

    Anyone else consider stabilisation of human population size a good idea?

    But looking at the world today it looks like man has other ideas about what matters.

    1. This is creationist in its level of stupidity. "Value" is not a measure of resource usage, and population growth seems to be inverse to average personal wealth and well being. Rich countries are accepting immigrants because they are not replacing their own populations. World population growth is likely to start declining withing thirty years. We are within 50 years of achieving sustainable energy for the world. (Yes, the climate will have warmed, )

    2. 1) Actually at any given moment there is a pretty good correlation between resource usage and "value". It's not absolute because human psychology is not so simple, but it is definitely there, and for a good reason -- most of the time things are "valuable" directly because of the high amount of embedded energy and material resources in them or because they are rare (and rarity implies that a much larger than usual amount of human time, energy and resources have to be invested into producing/obtaining them).

      2) Population growth is not inverse to average personal wealth, average personal wealth is correlated with the factors that drive down population growth but is not the cause of it. It's a very convenient correlation to be incessantly parroted by the preachers of the dominant socio-enobomic ideology/secular religion because it implies that there is no need to do anything differently, but it is nevertheless bogus on its own. The main reason people have so few children in industrialized societies is that they cannot afford to have more -- the cost of raising a child so that it is competitive in such an environment relative to the cost of raising it in a subsistence economy is much higher than the disparities in nominal wealth between the two. People would still have fewer children than the 8 or so that is the norm in subsistence farmers if they were really rich (as opposed to struggling to make it in a Western society but being counted as "rich" relative to people in Somalia), because competition for social status would be based on different things, but it would be more than one or two most of the time. Which is why every time I look at the families of billionaires, movie stars, the members of the Saudi royal family, etc. I noticed how often they have 3,4 etc. -- when you can afford nannies, private teachers, tuition is not a problem, etc., you can afford it without it negatively affecting your social status.

      3) That rich countries are not replacing their own population is a very good thing -- they are vastly overpopulated (Britain, for example, has not been able to feed itself since the middle of the 19th century, the consequences of which they found out during wartime) as they are and they have the second highest environmental footprints (after the Middle East oil kingdoms). It is a problem within the current socio-economic system, which needs perpetual growth to survive, but it is in fact that system and its high priests that are worse than creationism -- creationists suspend the laws of physics only at certain key points in the past when the deity intervened to make it so. Mainstream economists and politicians preaching the growth mantra reject the notion that the laws of physics apply to human civilization at all. It's just that very few people realize that.

      4) The population projections have been revised upwards twice in recent years (apparently you have missed that) and it is far from certain that they will start declining in 30 years. There is one huge assumption there -- that the very poor countries will industrialize and this will lead to a demographic transition. However, that's pretty much a biophysical impossibility -- the resources simply aren't there. On top of that there are strong cultural factors keeping fertility high. These are the reasons why it has not been dropping as fast as expected and they have had to repeatedly revise the projections (it used to be a world population of ~9 billion in 2100, now it's 11 billion, with a lot more uncertainty about the high end of projections).


    3. 5) It never ceases to amaze me how people can feel good about population eventually leveling off at a 50% than the current number given the impact we are having on the planet now and the total unsustainability of our current state (which cannot be maintained without huge inputs of nonrenewable resources, a number of them being past or near the peak of extraction). Given those well known facts, how could leveling off at 10-11 billion be anything but an absolute disaster?

      6) If you think we are "within 50 years of achieving sustainable energy for the world" that means that you have negative (not even zero) understanding of energy issues and how the system works.

    4. You have it backwards -- individuals in all species are driven by the mandate to maximize inclusive fitness (those who were not did not make it and those how are not today will not make it either).

      In some special circumstances this leads to the evolution of eusocial species, but in the majority of cases, it is the same situation as with us. As a side note, it is far from certain that an eusocial species would behave much better -- it certainly has the advantage of not having to deal with so much rogue individual behavior but what would the individual colonies do? We don't know. And that is after assuming that an eusocial species could ever evolve the intelligence to understand that it is in ecological overshoot. Which is highly doubtful on its own -- it looks like you need individualism to develop intelligence and science, of the kind that is not compatible with eusociality.

      Anyway, "balance of nature" and "it's all because of greed and selfishness" are misleading notions. If there was an intrinsic "balance of nature" introducing cats and rats on a remote ocean island would not lead to the disastrous consequences that it usually leads to initially. And ecosystems would not be radically transformed at a given place every few tens of thousands of years with the glaciation and climate change cycle. The balance becomes established as a result of competition, and eventually, the system adjusts, but it might not be a state we particularly like. And we sometimes don't even realize it has adjusted -- North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, a number of other islands, etc. looked "pristine" when Europeans arrived but were anything but -- a wave of megafauna extinction had swept a long time before that with the arrival of the first humans.

      The only difference between us and other species is that we won the evolutionary lottery and can outcompete everyone else (and are then behaving the way many lottery winners do -- using the wealth recklessly, going broke and ending up even poorer).

      Which leads me to the part about "greed and selfishness". The most disastrous consequence of the current socio-economic system is that by creating such vast inequality it blocks any meaningful possibility for the kind of change in the future that's necessary. Because it makes it very easy to blame others and absolve oneself from all responsibility. We will be watching another prime example of that over the next two weeks in Paris with poorer countries refusing to accept that such a thing as laws of physics exists and they cannot grow their economies the way developed countries did.

      If I'm writing all this, it should be obvious that I am no fan of rampant predatory capitalism. But people who think that it is the ultimate cause of all problems (as opposed to another consequence of deeper causes) are not part of the solution.

    5. So in the end, through the combined effect of all the scientific illiteracy and ignorance, political biases, and other innate human cognitive deficiencies, we end up in a situation in which:

      1) There are probably not more than a few tens of thousands of people in the whole world who really "get it".

      2) The vast majority is just plain indifferent

      3) A large minority actively refuses to accept that there is a problem.

      4) Another large minority deludes itself with fairy tales about an ecological paradise that will be achieved by just completely switching to renewable energy but otherwise carrying on business as usual. Without ever bothering to look at the numbers and understand all the problems with scale, base load capacity, and sustainability (let's say you've used a huge fossil fuel subsidy to build a million square kilometers of solar arrays -- now can you do that again in 25 years without that fossil fuel subsidy just using the energy from those same solar arrays? And so on ad infinitum while also growing the economy...). And without understanding that it's not a problem of just CO2 emissions but merely one component of many of a global overshoot crisis that would still cause the collapse of civilization even if there was no problem with the climate.

      5) A smaller minority thinks that the solution is to emulate "indigenous" people who supposedly lived in harmony with nature. Without realizing that indigenous people were just as good at wrecking their environment as we are (which is why most of the world's megafauna was wiped out at the end of the last ice age) and poor people are very good at it today too (Haiti's deforestation is a relatively well known example, but every tropical forest around the world that is eerily silent because all the large animals have been killed for bushmeat should be sufficient to appreciate that fact too). And, of course, some of the most brutal and oppressive regimes in history were created by "innocent" indigenous people, it's just that it happened a long time ago in remote place and few people know it.

      It's basically self-delusion and ignorance all around.

      In practice their momentum is so large that there isn't much that could be done at this point to reverse the damage.

      But in theory the only way to get out of this situation is for each and every human being to begin looking at themselves and the species as a whole in the cool and rational way we quite successfully analyze the behavior of fruit flies and lab rats. So that the fundamental driving factors of human behavior and their consequences are understood by everyone and hopefully reigned in a little bit.

      BTW, this is also the main reason why we should fight religion until it's eradicated from the face of the planet. Forget about creationism in schools, gay rights, Islamic fundamentalism, and all the other well known problems. As real as they might be they are trivial compared to this.

      There is a cottage academic industry these days dedicated to reconciling religious thinking and ecological awareness. How much those who truly believe the "go forth and multiply" message will ever listen to what comes out of that movement is highly doubtful. Not to mention what the chances of the pope ever changing his stance on population control are. But even if we ignore these considerations, there is still a huge problem -- any form of religion that involves deities, immaterial souls, spirits, etc. is incompatible with the understanding of the animal nature of humans I talked about above. So all that can be achieved within that framework is making people believe the right things for the wrong reasons, likely only for a brief period of time (these arrangements are very unstable and tend to devolve into believing the wrong things for the wrong reasons).

  4. The long term effect on economic development by the conduct of basic research is well demonstrated by a paper authored in 1905 by an obscure employee of the Swiss Patent Office on the subject of stimulated emission of electromagnetic energy. The result of this research is the multibillion laser industry (one need to look no farther then the DVD player in one's computer). Interestingly enough, it's the hundredth anniversary of the publication of another paper by the same author on what is now known as the General Theory of Relativity, without which the satellite based communications would not be possible, not to mention the precise trajectories followed by space probes to Mars, Pluto etc.

    1. I always bring up David Hilbert in this type of discussion. Hilbert was asked what practical applications his research could have and he answered that it had none and that he was very sure that neither of the fields he was active in would ever have any applications. Now at the time his main contributions had been to general relativity (in another interview Hilbert was asked to comment on the statement "there are only 3 people who fully understand general relativity" and Hilbert replied "I wonder who the third one is". And nobody called him an arrogant prick for it.) and foundational aspects of mathematics. And the latter had recently had produced an answer to a question Hilbert had posed - the Entscheidungsproblem had been solved by Turing. Within about a decade GR had been relevant for the Manhattan project and Turing had used his notion of universal machines, which he had used abstractly to solve the EP to crack the Enigma.
      Hilbert is relevant because he was of course a very major figure for these things and he could not foresee what they would lead to. Sure looking into mathematics within that very small step approach seemed like a waste of time. Over 100 pages to prove that 1+1=2? But of course that became potent because you could make a machine do the small steps and that has shaped our world in so many ways.

    2. At risk of diverting the discussion off topic, let me point out that what Turing did to help crack the Enigma cipher was to lead the building of electronic machines to speed up the testing of code machine settings. The general strategy for cracking the cipher had already been found by the Polish and British teams -- what Turing did was speed the cracking process up enormously.

      I don't think that he made use of his deep mathematical theorems in all this.

    3. But the initial breakthrough itself was the work of three professional mathematicians (my university prides itself on being their alma mater, and they are commemorated by a small monument outside the building that used to host the maths department), who cracked the cipher using permutation group theory.

      They agreed to work for the Cipher Bureau in Warsaw as full-time military decryptors, which meant an end to their promising academic careers (and their contribution to cracking the Enigma remained unrecognised for many years after the war).

    4. @Joe: Precisely. The reason that's connected to his work on the foundation of mathematics is that to solve the Entscheidungsproblem Turing introduced the notion of the universal machine. The bombe wasn't a UTM by any stretch, but prior calculating machines had been engineered bottom up - by designing them for one specific function. The bombe was engineered by starting with the notion of the UTM and reducing its functionality to what was necessary for the task,
      Up to that point it was by no means clear that a machine could be designed to perform a particular computational task. After the EP publications it became a question of how rather than if (given the problem was computable at all).