Ernie enters our research funding debate. He answers my claim that research funding must be justified, not only among peers, but also to the general public.
Recall that I say that you must be able to explain how receiving funding will help society. Among other things, I complain that training graduate students is often seen as a sufficient output. The implicit claim is that these graduate students are badly needed by industry, even if it is blatantly false:
Once there was a time when graduating with a Ph.D. in the hard sciences meant a one-way ticket to a successful career that offered intellectual satisfaction and prestige. A graduate education—requiring diligence, patience, and lots of commitment—was well worth the hard work. But it is a seller’s market no more. Students graduating with hard-earned doctoral degrees in the hard sciences these days are faced with a thinning supply of research grants and jobs. Yet the number of students getting accepted into, and graduating from, advanced programs remains fixed. Despite the harsh realities of the job market, research universities are contributing to the Ph.D. job crisis by neglecting to adjust the number of students being trained and failing to alter their curricula to make Ph.D.s better prepared for today’s economy.
I insist that public justification for the funding is needed because, the peers are bias [looking for more graduate students when society doesn't need more] and can’t decide which fields are more desserving [because few "peers" are truly multidisciplinary]. Ernie tells me that…
…this avoids the real issue, which is that federal funding for all fundamental research is on the decline. (…) What’s less arguable is that this decrease in funding, if not reversed, will do serious long-term damage to American scientific research.
Daniel might be okay with that. (He is, after all, Canadian.) I find it deeply troubling.
So, somehow, fundamental research is now exempt from justifying itself and must receive public funding even if it doesn’t benefit society? Where did this rule come from?
Was there always public funding? No. What happened? Among other things, Germany showed that publicly funded universities and research could greatly contribute to society.
That’s why we have public funding for research. And if research is no longer judged useful for society, then it stands to reason that it should be cut.
So, is a ben laden detector something worth funding? Well, if you live in a country where a sizeable majority thinks so, it seems you have few options: you work to change their mind, accept it and build ben laden detectors or you leave. That’s it.
Don’t stand tall and complain that your research fund is being cut claiming that you shouldn’t have to justify the value of your work. Sorry, you do have to justify it. You do have to convince your countrymen that you do useful work. And if you don’t do useful work, then don’t expect generous funding.
[Disclaimer: I consider I do mostly semi-fundamental research and I do have some research funding, at least enough to help one or two graduate students. Finally, as Ernie points out, I'm Canadian and our government is not yet looking for ben laden-focused research.]