Thursday, August 03, 2006

Cost-benefit of science funding

This is fromt the latest Royal Society Alert - Issue 434

Comment by Royal Society Policy Analysts, Drs Jez Weston and Kathleen Logan

Essentially, basic research is like drilling for oil. You are not certain
of what's down there until you drill and each hole costs millions, but one
hit can pay for the all the empty holes and more. And just like the oil
industry, science has transformed our lives. There is no doubt that there
are huge economic benefits but they are hard to measure. This problem is
especially true for areas of research where the goal is knowledge. Basic,
untargeted research is fundamental to our ability to apply knowledge, yet
the financial cost-benefit analysis is virtually impossible [my emphasis].
I think this last comment is just sloppy wishful thinking. Typical scientists who just want to have their research funding and not have to justify it. Does anyone remember the IRL automatic sheep shearing robot fiasco?? A little discipline in application and analysis is not too much to ask when someone else's taxes are paying for your job. Yes, 10% of scientists should be able to do whatever they want, having 90% of the rest say that they should as well is just plain stupid.
As for doing the analysis, if only there was a way to measure the difference in countries standard of living between those that invest in knowledge activities and those that don't. Oh, hang on a sec, it's a huge part of the economics literature...
In addition, being a grown-up country means that you have to do grown-up things. I don't personally benefit from all sorts of crap the govt funds almost all the time - think of civil defence planning. I hope (fervently) that i never have to get out of Auckland if a volcano blows but I sure as hell expect a civil defence plan to kick into action if it happens.
Science funding can be modelled using insurance-type analyses. These companies seem to be able to make a living, so maybe the analysis is not impossible, just difficult...


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