Friday, June 8, 2012

Basic Research under Attack

Since the current world-wide crisis began scientists have had very difficult times. Cuts in budgets and grants are a common difficulty that researchers have to handle in order to progress with their projects. Nevertheless, curiosity and perseverance  are major forces that can drive a scientist towards their goal even in such a harsh condition. However, there is a critical boundary that can kill the bravest researcher and this happens when the manager in charge of science in your own country; the one who has to protect you as a researcher, tells in a prestigious media that "we must now stop talking about the importance of science, and instead commit ourselves to the need for excellence in science" and "we need to change the number of researchers by maintaining and improving the quality of the contracts while reducing the quantity.You can find the full article in this link.

Of course the response of the scientific community has been quick, and with data that disqualifies these statements. For instance,, a well-known Spanish web site for the popularization of science, has shown the following chart (Fig. 1) in which depicts the number of scientists per million of inhabitants. As it shows, there seems to be a strong relation between the ratio of scientists and the progress of a country, and in the particular case of Spain it is far bellow the most industrialized (thus less affected by the crisis) countries in the EU.

Fig. 1 Number of R&D personnel per million of inhabitants. Credit:

One can argue that science has to have private funds and not public ones during crisis times; that we have to spend money in other much more important things like saving banks or preserving cultural traditions like bull fight*. This is a common reasoning of illiterate people about science. As it is pointed out by many scientists over the years, public R&D programmes are focused mainly on basic, fundamental, pure research, that is, they do not seek an immediate monetary benefit (as it happens with private companies), but to discover new things; to acquire new knowledge. This knowledge can be later exploited by companies and that is the case, just to mention one straightforward example, of the discovery of quantum physics and modern day electronics. Who could predict back in the 1930's that these crazy ideas could lead to a such an industrial revolution that move billions of dollars each year world-wide?

Investing in R&D is ensuring the future of the country and not only in the wealth of its inhabitants but also in the health and happiness as well. 

*notice the irony of the author.

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