Follow-up on the Discussions about Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake

I’ve been enjoying the discussion around Patek’s recent video argument for knowledge for knowledge’s sake in several forums. I thought I’d summarize my arguments here. To me it looks all pretty straightforward.

From a principled stance, as to funding research, it is the funder’s prerogative who to fund. Often, grant proposals (funding requests) exceed available funds, so the funder needs to rank-order the grant proposals and typically will fund those ranked highest until the funds are exhausted. A private funder may use whatever criteria they deem appropriate. Public funding, i.e. taxpayer money, is more tricky as this is typically the government agencies setting policies that somehow rank-order funding proposals for a particular fund. It seems rather obvious to me that taxpayer money should be spent on something that benefits society. Hence, a grant proposal must promise some of that benefit. How it does this, can vary. I see at least two dimensions along which to argue: Immediacy (or risk) and impact. Something that believably provides benefits sooner is preferable to something that provides benefits later. Something that believably promises a higher impact is preferable to something that provides lower impact.

Thus, research that promises to cure cancer today is preferable over research that explains why teenage girls prefer blue over pink on Mondays and are generally unapproachable that day. Which is not to say that the teenage girl question might not get funded: Funders and funding are broad and deep and for everything that public agencies won’t fund there is a private funder whose pet peeve would be solving that question.

The value of research is always relative, never absolute, and always to be viewed within a particular evaluation framework.

So what about research that creates knowledge for the sake of creating knowledge? There is no promised benefit. There is no clear impact nor clear time-line. As far as I can tell, the implied value of such research is a diffuse “society will be better off if we allow for such curiosity driven research”. I think that’s true. I think society will be better off if we allow people to be curious and explore non-obvious research questions. Just not on a lot of taxpayer money. The funds allocated to such research in my opinion should be rather limited, because as experience suggests, very little of that research will create any tangible benefit to those funding it.

Now, let’s look at some of the counter arguments against this principled stance:

If you don’t fund such research, many fundamental insights would not have happened. This is a hypothesis that seems obviously wrong to me. There are an infinite number of pathways to any particular research result and it is not at all clear that taking a more incremental approach, in which each steps has some recognizable benefit, would not lead to those hypothesized breakthroughs faster and in a more cost-effective way.

You shouldn’t ask for benefits (or applications) because you won’t know them before you carried out such curiosity driven research. The benefits will become visible only afterwards. To this I provide the same answer above: I don’t believe that you can’t get the same results for a much lower risk by taking smaller incremental steps, all of which are motivated in themselves with clear benefits. I have to admit that I simply don’t understand why some folks don’t want to think about the impact of their work.

Yeah, but some breakthrough research is that paradigm-changing that you can’t find an incremental path from here to there. And again: How so? How does arguing benefits relate to impact? Not at all! Specifically for breakthrough research you should be able to argue for its expected benefits! Of course they may not happen but you if you can believable promise high impact, funders may be willing to accept high risk.

In your framework, there won’t be any funding for biology or psychology or philosophy research; it would all go to STEM research. I never said anything like this. In fact, the government, i.e. the biggest funder of them all (typically) should follow a portfolio strategy and realize the uncertainty of a lot of research and where the next big breakthrough might come from. Focusing on some topics doesn’t mean ignoring others. Also, alternative funding sources would quickly jump in; crowd intelligence is quite good at balancing (some) of this.

As to Patek’s work: I like it. I like the suggested applications and benefits to society. I don’t understand why she doesn’t want to think about applications before she starts work. To me, envisioning benefits to society is actually highly motivating.

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