Following Matt Ridley’s ill-informed claim in the Wall Street Journal ((“The Myth of Basic Science,” Review, Oct. 24) that basic science doesn’t really need government support because most of it emerges from technology anyway, I essayed a rebuttal with my friend and colleague Ibo van de Poel, Professor of Ethics and Technology at the Technical University of Delft, and a genuine expert in the field. It was published as the lead letter on October 30 (http://www.wsj.com/articles/fundamental-science-and-useful-applications-1446231782). For those who can’t access wsj, here is the original letter in full (it was slightly edited, and to my mind slightly diluted, in the printed version):
Matt Ridley (“The Myth of Basic Science”; wsj October 24 Saturday Essay) dismisses basic science as “abstractions of the lab.” It’s a pity about that, because without the very abstract General Theory of Relativity, your GPS navigation system wouldn’t work. Without the abstract ideas of quantum mechanics, we wouldn’t have lasers and CD players. And without a basic understanding of the structure of the DNA molecule, we would have no chance of tackling many genetically-based diseases.
None of these basic ideas arose as “deep scientific insights [which were] fruits … from the tree of technological change.” They arose from scientists trying to understand the fundamental laws of nature. This does not mean that technological applications automatically followed, or could follow, since the most significant applications are often the least predictable. Basic understanding does indeed sometimes emerge from technology, but the idea of technology as an autonomous, self-organizing entity has largely been discredited. Brian Arthur, whom Ridley cites in support, has in fact made a quite different point – that technological development is characterized by path dependencies and lock-ins due to the social dynamics of the networks in which the technology is embedded.
The key problem is how to invest so as to maximize the potential for innovation. Most advances in technology are incremental, and based on existing knowledge – suitable material for private investors who need short-term returns. But the big advances come from the big ideas, which come most often to those who are searching for them, rather than waiting for them to drop as fruits from a tree. Here the investment is long-term, the benefits incalculable, and the damage immeasurable unless governments support the diversity of basic research that has produced so much in the past, but will continue to do so only if properly nurtured in the future.
Len Fisher, University of Bristol, UK
Ibo van de Poel, Technical University of Delft, The Netherlands