Funding science: imagining the future

One of the problems with modern scientific inquiry is that it’s inherently costly, both in terms of labor and instrumentation (to say nothing of consumables like reagents). What that means in terms of the modern global economy is that cutting edge science, as it is currently funded, is difficult to sustain during times of economic crisis. Societies have a tough enough time taking care of basic needs. The fuzzy promises of science, where deliverables are really never honestly predictable, take second seat to jobs, food, energy and defense–even though all of these basic needs really depend on science and technology.

Really this problem is another version of humankind’s difficulty with the “discount curve”. I’d rather have my loaf of bread today than two loafs one year from now.

Nevertheless, long term human success as defined by access to basic needs, economic success, and having a high quality of life are quite constrained by our scientific success. For example, until we find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, we will be spending an increasingly larger piece of the pie on chronic long term health care as we live longer. Those are resources that could be deployed quite usefully in other areas.

Similarly, with 7 billion human inhabitants of Earth, and the probable need to adapt our agriculture to climate change, we will need something beyond the “green revolutions” of the 1960’s to supply food, even at the current levels. To get the multitudes in developing nations out of poverty is an even greater challenge. Those advances will need to come from science.

Some major scientific challenges are currently internationally funded. These include large scale physics and astronomy, antarctic research and some energy projects.

In contrast, certain areas of science are not only underfunded (for example given the sheer size of the potential loss from global economic collapse, economics as a field is clearly underfunded), they are also funded in national isolation, with one country potentially duplicating the research activities of another.

Given how closely tied European science is to North American, it’s often quite astounding to me how many barriers exist to pooling funding resources across the Atlantic. These barriers are fractal in nature because they have similar characteristics at the very large scale all the way to the micro-level where individual university PI’s collaborate (or try to).

We have the WTO, IMF and World Bank to handle the challenges of globalism as far as trade and finance go. We have nothing comparable in firepower (size of the bazooka to use the current terminology) for international science–particularly as far as biomedical, and small-scale basic science is concerned.

We need it.

How might it be funded? Recently the notion of a Tobin, or transaction tax, has been floated as a way to avoid another Lehman Brothers Fall (referring to Fall 2008, but also a mighty economic fall). I’d prefer to see something like a global Tobin tax to fund science, across the globe. Not only might such a financial transactions tax reduce global volatility. It might also provide the bazooka to sustain science stably in an increasingly multipolar, unstable world.