Sunday, April 10, 2005

More on funding and research

Daniel Lemire responds to my lament on research. Daniel, you did understand me correctly, so there is no confusion there. :)

I wrote this long rant about how the funding that computer scientists need is not insignificant, because of student support. I then realized that this is not what I wanted to respond to. The real issue is this:
if you need a lot of cash to do your research, you’ve got to justify the use of the money. Justify it to whom? To the people who give you the money. This seems only fair. If you want to do research for its own sake, and you also want a lot of money, well, tough.
But this is the point I am lamenting. The very idea that you justify research by drawing a direct lline between that research and some promised benefit in the near future is problematic. Of course research needs to have direction. If I am going to study the higher moment properties of the distribution formed by the length of the hind legs of ring-tailed wallabies, I should presumably have some reason why this is relevant. But I cannot draw a direct line between this distribution and (say) a cure for cancer, and nor should I be expected to. I would argue that the point of government funding is precisely to fund projects that have no near term monetary value, but fit into a long term research agenda as perceived by a jury of one's peers (like say a grant review panel).

Once again, I defer to Timothy Gowers and his masterful lecture, where he spells out in detail how research contributions can be twisted, gnarly things that are hard to linearize. My point is merely that if one believes that long-term research add value in terms of adding to our base of knowledge about the world (Platonic or otherwise), then one cannot merely say, 'do it on your own time; Einstein did !'. Even he built GR on a mathematical edifice that had been in development for a while, with frankly no clear "practical" purpose prior to his work.
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