Friday, August 12, 2005

Pure Science versus Applied Science

A summer science research course I teach always has many good discussions about analysis techniques, the scientific method, and specific areas of research. A topic that always makes an appearance is the debate over what type of research is more valuable, pure or applied. In particular, the class debate peaks when we travel out to Fermilab to visit some of the facilities and labs. Prior to that visit, classes are normally close to split over which is more vital to the progress of science and the U.S. lead world research.

Pure science research is that work which is done in the pursuit of new knowledge. Scientists working in this type of research don’t necessarily have any ideas in mind about applications of their work. They may be testing an existing theory, they may have a new experimental technique they want to try, or they may literally stumble accidentally into a new area of discovery (many of the great discoveries in history occurred by accident, such as X-rays and penicillin). Encompassed in this realm is a good deal of theoretical research, such as those who are working on quantum mechanics, superstrings, theoretical cosmology, and many others.
Applied science research is that which is geared towards applications of knowledge and concrete results that are useful for specific purposes. Engineering is certainly an application of knowledge for finding practical solutions to specific problems. Research into instrumentation, new inventions, and new processes that may improve productivity in industry, as well as medical research geared towards the production of new drugs, are obvious examples of this type of research.

Fermilab, for example, is a mammoth device that is used almost entirely for pure research in particle physics. Scientists look for new forms of matter, study fundamental forces between particles, test theories such as the Standard Model, and test new types of instrumentation. As an ideal example of ‘big’ science, students are wide-eyed when told the power bill is something like $10,000 per hour and that operating budgets, paid for by taxpayer dollars, run in the hundreds of millions (not to mention the billions of dollars that have been spent over the years to build the facility and the main experiments). My question for them is: Is it worth it?
On the surface, most people can think of better uses of billions of dollars. I’ve been asked countless times how scientists can justify the costs of facilities like Fermilab or the price-tag associated with sending another space probe to Mars. What about cures for cancer? New energy sources? Better sources of food that can be grown and used by the third-world? Are these not more important areas of study, especially when the answer to the question, “What good is a top quark?” is “I cannot think of a single application.” Certainly politicians are faced with such questions, and rightly so. We absolutely need to ask these questions and find priorities for limited resources and funding.

Politicians, of course, prefer applied science research. They would love to be able to go to their constituents with news of a new invention or discovery that will make life better, and, gee, since I supported the funding of the research I deserve to be re-elected. While applied science almost always wins out in a class vote of which is more important, as I argue in my last posting that thinking in terms of absolutes can limit progress, my conclusion is BOTH are absolutely essential for the progress of science as well as maintaining our status as a superpower.

Pure science keeps new ideas and discoveries flowing. Progress in almost any field, be it industry, business, or medicine, depends on the amount of knowledge one has access to. Continuing wit Fermilab as our working example, it is true that a discovery such as a top quark almost certainly cannot yield a direct, beneficial application for mankind. But, in order to make that discovery, and what is not obvious to the general public, requires new technologies and breakthroughs that can often lead to spin-offs that revolutionize everyday life. The world of fast computation, massive data storage, and fast electronics has been built on the work that needed to be done to build Fermilab and discover the top quark. Applications of superconductivity took this phenomenon from a fascinating quantum state we can produce in the lab to the world of high-strength magnets necessary for steering particles at the speed of light. Little did anyone originally know that eventually someone would figure out that these same superconducting magnets can be used to create internal images of the body, now called MRI technology. This blog site is possible because of the pioneering computer network (both hardware and software) created by high energy physicists, who found it necessary to share data between experiments in the U.S. and Europe. And most people are unaware of the Cancer Treatment Center at Fermilab, that uses neutron beams created by the main accelerators. There are only four such centers in the U.S., and thousands of patients have been treated over the years.

The point is that pure science is absolutely essential. This type of science ensures that we keep pushing the envelope and continue our quest of deciphering Nature’s puzzles. It leads to the fringe and cutting edge science in all disciplines. While primary work may or may not be useful for the general public in the form of a physical device or process, history shows convincingly that whatever investment is made will usually be paid back (often many times over) in the form of spin-offs. I, for one, have no complaints of some of my tax money going towards a national lab such as Fermilab, or any other facility that promotes pure science research.


Erica said...

A while ago I was reading on our screen porch and was distracted by a cicada that was buzzing so loudy that I couldn't concentrate. I walked around the outside of the porch, trying to find the cicada so I could shoo it away, and in the process of looking for it, I discovered a hill of carpenter ants right at the foundation of the porch. Our porch is wooden, and if I hadn't been looking for the cicada and accidentally found the ant hill, those ants might have done some serious damage. Instead, we were able to get rid of them in time.

Does this mean that my mother should pay me to find other cicadas in hopes that it will help with home improvements? Of course not. If she really wants me to help improve the house, she should pay me to do things where the GOAL is to improve the house.

I bring this example up because in my opinion, the government funding Fermilab is like my mom paying me to find cicadas. The government's job is to take care of Americans, and consequently, I think they should use our tax dollars for research that will directly benefit ordinary people. It doesn't seem fair to invest money in research with goals like figuring out how many force carriers there are when there are so many underfunded projects with goals that benefit humanity.

Think of it this way: if the scientists who work at Fermilab were to meet every one of their research goals, 99.9% of Americans (and actually, not even all scientists) would have their quality of life and level of intelligence stay the same. And as much as I hate the fact that not everyone cares about quantum physics as much as I do, I think that it's the government's job to give money to the causes that help the most Americans.

Just to be clear about this, I'm not trying to argue that pure science hasn't paid for itself and produced useful inventions in the past. There's no question about that. I'm also not trying to argue that finding out about how the universe works isn't interesting or important. On the contrary, I think it's one of the most interesting subjects I've ever heard of. What I am saying is that it's not the government's place to put so much money into a field that only benefits the public by accident.

I'll stop writing now that my comment is probably longer than your entry. I hope you have a good argument against this, because it's something that has bothered me for a long time and also something that may stop me from ultimately doing research in quantum physics.

vonny said...

Hi erica,

The problem I have with your argument is how does one know what the goal is, if noe is working with limited information and knowledge of the problem? Improving a house likely means to most people cosmetic work on the exterior or redecorating rooms. But what if the wood studs in the walls are rotting out? What if the foundation has cracks? Usually the hard part of making sense of things requires the hard work of careful analysis after collecting data about the nuts and bolts (i.e. inner structure) of the problem.

To NOT pursue pure science is cutting off one's legs and then being told you have to now run a race. All of a sudden the flow of new information is cut off. Potential new fields of science will not be discovered and expanded upon. A classic example is what if funding was stopped for JJ Thomson's lab in 1897 after he discovered a light negatively charged particle that did not appear to have any pracitcal use. If we did not expand the research after Thomson discovered the electron, or if there were no resources available to do that pure research in the first place, so much for the world of electronics and the computer age.

The government's roles are many, but fundamentally our government is to provide for the common defense, and allow individuals to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is largely determined by the state of the economy. Because our entire defense establishment and economy is built around technology, I would have to say government has an absolute obligation to provide the means for scientists to do their work; to test theories that may provide physical explanations for why things work the way they do, to discovering new phenomena in order to better understand the world we live in. To reach new levels of discoveries, the limitations of our measuring tools and probes always need to be pushed into new levels of precision and other words, new technology needs to be developed in order to keep pushing science into new unexplored territory. This is fundamental to science (and our natural this not what largely separates humans from all other species?).

We are just beginning to understand the way complex systems behave. What we need to understand is that cutting edge science has real effects on lots of other areas of life, may times in ways that we never could imagine until the work was done. Could anyone have predicted the enormous extent relativity would have on the world? Einstein was a practitioner of pure science. He was after answers to fundamental science questions, but as you are well aware that pure science changed human history completely. Quantum mechanics is another shining example of pure sicence research at the theroetical and experimental level that has produced the modern age. The founers of the theory simply wanted to understand in great detail how atoms behave. They were not interested or driven by what practical inventions could come out of it. But by developing and testing a theory, they had a whole set of instructions that could be used to manipulate the quantum universe and give us our modern world. The same can be said for Maxwell's work in electromagnetic theory, thermodynamics, genetics, and almost any field of science.

My argument is that BOTH types of science are necessary. Applied science is the obvious choice because that is what the general public is aware of, but my goal is to produce evidence that applied science may in fact collapse without pure science research expanding boundaries of scientific disciplines and even creating new ones.

By the way, there are numerous private funding sources for research, but as you may guess many of those courses are interested in applications in order to get patents and make money. THe government, I am fairly certain, is the main source of funding (via numerous internal agenices like NSF, NIH, Dept. of Energy, which runs the national labs, and so on) for many pure research groups.

By the way #2, this is another problem I have with something like intelligent design. Because science cannot (YET) explain how something like a cell can come about through natural means, we may as well just call it quits and base our explanation on something that rests on personal beliefs and faith (a supernatural entity).This is not how science works, period.

mark said...

Erica wrote:

"The government's job is to take care of Americans"

Well, not really.

Popular misconception I realize but even " promote the general welfare" and the elastic clause combined does not stretch quite that far - for which we may all be thankful lest the government decide tomorrow that the best way to "care" for us would be in collective farms and labor camps. It can happen - just ask Japanese-Americans or the Indians.

Fermilab is at least as justifiable (or unjustifiable) as say, subsidies to sugar growers, Pell grants, home mortgage interest deductions, affirmative action set-aside small business loans for women and minorities and no-bid federal contracts to major corporations.

Unless you stand on principle we're just arguing spending preferences and little else.

vonny said...

Another way of thinking about this is to view pure and applied science in a similar way to vertical (expertise) and horizontal (vision) thinking. Go to an old blog by Zenpundit at for a graphic and explanation if interested. Vertical and horizontal thinking are not antagonistic, but rather complementary. Same thing here. You might imagine applied science on the vertical axis and pure science on the horizontal. They influence each other, and it is difficult to move to higher levels on either axis without making progress on the other. I hope this analogy makes sense.

Anon said...

Interesting entry and comments. I've always been more attracted by 'pure sciences'. I just want to know how things work at a fundamental level, but I agree that the applications are equally important.