Philistines may carp but scientists should reach for the sky

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In 1969 Robert Wilson, director of the National Accelerator Laboratory, was testifying before the US Congress. He sought funding for a particle accelerator (forerunner of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern where the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012). Asked by Senator John Pastore how his project would help defeat the Russians, he responded: “It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another . . . are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets . . . new knowledge has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”

This position requires occasional reaffirmation. It is sad that Senator Tom Coburn is stepping down from the Senate because of ill health, but less sad that he is stepping down. The blend the Tea Party brew is rather weak for Mr Coburn, who believes research should be useful and has firm views of what is useful. Research into how we ride bicycles (an interesting subject, in my view: most people can, a few cannot, and neither those who can nor those who cannot really understand how or why). If Mont Hubbard of the University of California at Davis can tell us how, he deserves a medal if not a Nobel Prize, though his bicycling robots are easy to mock.

But Mr Coburn’s greatest ire was reserved for the funding of political science. He believes that people who want to understand politics can watch Fox News – though he conceded that some might prefer to pay attention to CNN and MSNBC. Last year he tagged an amendment to an omnibus bill that blocked grant funding to academic research in this field. But American political scientists are rejoicing this month; the prohibition lapsed in the latest Congressional budget compromise.

Politicians can always win cheap laughs by reading out the titles of research projects they do not understand. In the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, her minister Sir Keith Joseph tried to abolish the then Social Science Research Council, but a report commissioned from Victor Rothschild failed to deliver the desired verdict.

Rothschild used the example of research on “kinship and sex roles in a Polish village”, a project description that had provoked much merriment in the UK public accounts committee. A respondent pointed out that the work showed how the inefficiency of fragmented land holdings increasingly tended by ageing women gave rise to economic cost and political tensions. We now know that such tensions grew in Poland in the following decade. And then the Berlin Wall came down.

Anthropology helps us understand the world, in ways that are helpful whether we are talking about the internal contradictions of communism or the pathologies of financial crises. And ideas frame the world in which we live. Stalin is supposed to have laughed at Papal criticism, asking how many divisions the Pope had at his disposal. Yet in the long run it was the Pope who proved more powerful.

The British Academy last week published an explanation of the rationale for research in humanities and social sciences. (Full disclosure – I feature in a case study.) But what is the purpose of studying history and literature? Because they make us what we are. Jonathan Bate, the literary scholar, quotes the Duke of Marlborough as saying “the English get their history from Shakespeare and their theology from Milton”, and perhaps they do. No doubt the grain merchants of Athens asked what Plato was doing to improve their harvests, and the goldsmiths of Pisa, their feet firmly on the ground, asked Galileo what use was gravity. The philistine fixation with temporary utility is swamped in the long run by the enduring power of ideas. And just one discovery such as calculus, gravity or democracy will pay for a lot of research.

Of course, there is a lot of bad and useless research. But as the Polish example illustrates, it is difficult to decide which research is useless or how research will influence our lives. The most immediate practical offshoot of particle physics research had nothing to do with particle physics at all: the worldwide web began as a means of enabling the scientists involved to keep in touch.

Pastore, questioning Wilson, was not asking what particle physics would do for the shopkeepers of Rhode Island. He was throwing an easy ball to a scientist whose objectives he supported. We need another Pastore, not another Mr Coburn.

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