Science vs 'developing technology'

A good op-ed piece appeared in the latest issue of Physics Today, the journal of the American Institute of Physics, discussing the distinction between science and what the NZ government would call 'innovation', i.e. applied research, technology development, short-term results.

It is yet another reminder that in the R&D mix, we must support the 'R' to be able to do the 'D'.  In my opinion, the current government (and most governments) do not understand this.  They quite rightly look to science to drive the economy (as it has for over a century), but do not have the vision that science is a long-term endeavour where the big payoffs come quite unexpectedly.  As the PT article notes, 

Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, and other quantum pioneers would not have spent decades developing something as elegant and comprehensive as quantum theory if all they cared about had been creating products. Planck had no idea that his theory would underlie a new age of electronic computing; he was just looking for an explanation. To develop something like quantum theory, somebody needs to be looking for a fundamental theory. If we aren't looking for the laws of nature, we won't find them.

These sentiments echo those of an Economist op-ed of a decade ago, which noted that

The scientifically inspired industrial revolution has brought about the greatest improvement in the human condition since the invention of agriculture in the Neolithic era. It has put bread on the table so reliably that people in the rich world now define poverty not as starvation, but as not having a television in the house.

Indeed.  But to see the television sets and the smart phones without appreciating the fundamental research effort that preceded and underpinned them is to completely miss the essence of scientific achievement.  Feed the roots and the fruit will grow.


So, hooray for the ATI.  But balance that funding with solid and on-going support for the underlying basic scientific research.



I agree. You can only hope

I agree. You can only hope the government realises that the ATI is not the complete answer to our woes.