Since we’re in a financial crisis (you may have heard a little about it…), there is some concern about the level of funding for basic research in the near (and long-term) future. While there are a lot of reasons to do fundamental science, one of the best reasons to fund it from a policy perspective is that it forms the basis for future innovation. The Incoherent Ponderer explains why the Federal government needs to be involved in this funding.
One of the many difficulties in having private funding for basic research is that most of the time there is no indication before-hand of where the applications will come from, or what form they will take. Imagine that in the late 1960s someone had submitted to NASA the following:
We should send a probe to Mars so that it will make an important discovery about the impact of nuclear war which will then help drive the move to reducing the global nuclear arsenal.
This is pure nonsense; no could predict an outcome like that. Yet that is exactly what happened. In 1971 the Mariner 9 probe reached Mars orbit just in time for a major sandstorm. By measuring the temperature changes as the particles from the storm started to settle out, they were able to determine how much of an effect the storm had on the Martian climate; in particular that it had reduced the surface temperature significantly while the dust from the storm was still in the upper atmosphere.
This insight led Carl Sagan and his collaborators to try to calculate what would happen in the even of a nuclear war. They knew that following the explosions a huge amount of dust and soot (mostly from fires started by the explosion) would be lifted into the atmosphere. The Mariner 9 data suggested there might be effect on Earth.
The results of our calculations astonished us. In the baseline case, the amount of sunlight at the ground was reduced to a few percent of normal-much darker, in daylight, than in a heavy overcast and too dark for plants to make a living from photosynthesis. At least in the Northern Hemisphere, where the great preponderance of strategic targets lies, an unbroken and deadly gloom would persist for weeks.
Even more unexpected were the temperatures calculated. … land temperatures, except for narrow strips of coastline, dropped to minus 250 Celsius (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit) and stayed below freezing for months — even for a summer war. … because the temperatures would drop so catastrophically, virtually all crops and farm animals, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, would be destroyed, as would most varieties of uncultivated or domesticated food supplies. Most of the human survivors would starve.
Here was a surprise that had been missed by all previous direct research into the effects of nuclear war, stumbled upon by studies of the Martian climate — a less applied field is hard to imagine. Now, while my title is obviously an exaggeration, this is a hugely important result that formed a part of the later arguments for arms reduction.
Not all spin-offs are technological, and almost none are predictable. What is predicable is that reduction or elimination of the basic research budget will eliminate these surprises — ones that may be of crucial importance.