What do physicists try to sell ?

Flamboyant American physicist Richard P. Feynman is quoted for saying “Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that is not why we do it”. Someone like Feynman could probably get away with that even today. But for Joe Physicist in 2008, it’s a different story.
It is likely true that most physicists, or scientists involved in basic research [0], practice the profession just for the fun of it; sheer curiosity, the challenge of solving a difficult problem, experiencing the thrill of a discovery, loads of narcissism and ambition, are often far stronger motivators than the possible new gadget that may be built based on the knowledge gained (and the ensuing monetary reward for the discoverer).
But science is an expensive endeavor; not much worthwhile can be done without significant, often massive financial resources. Now, few would take issue with the notion that medical research, for example, should be funded at least in part by taxpayers. But what about basic scientific research ? What product are physicists selling, that society should deem worth paying for ? Much to our chagrin, the answer is far from self-evident, especially when it comes to those fields of physics that are (or, are perceived to be) least likely to have a direct impact on the daily lives of most citizens.

Convincing a non-scientist (or even a fellow physicist working in another field) about the benefit of knowing once and for all whether the standard model of particle physics is correct or not, whether all fundamental forces can be unified, or even whether quantum computation can be realized, can be a daunting task. But because they heavily rely on the support of society at large for their activity, and because spending for science is generally discretionary, most physicists and scientists engaged in basic research are periodically required to make a sales pitch, at various levels, both as individuals and as a community.
Opinions and strategies differ, among us, as to how best to do that. This is particularly important a discussion, at a juncture when funding outlook for basic science looks rather gloomy.

It is hard for individual researchers, funding agencies, as well as politicians championing basic research, to resist the temptation of soliciting public and private funds by presaging large financial payoffs arising from ground-breaking technological applications, in turn rendered possible by fundamental scientific advances. After all, how could anyone deny that major scientific breakthroughs underlie essentially all modern technology ? And, although some basic science, with no obvious immediate practical outcome, does capture public imagination (such as space exploration), the question that scientists are most likely to be asked when promoting their research activity to laypersons is “what use will that have ?”
Funding agencies have been singing the same tune for some time, and now almost always require researchers applying for grants, to make a statement on foreseeable practical results of their proposed research. Identifying tangible applications can be a difficult proposition, for the very nature of basic research; one has frequently little choice but “being creative” (read: stretch reality a bit). Even major undertakings, such as the construction of a new facility to perform cutting-edge fundamental experiments (typically with a hefty price tag), are sometimes sold to the public based on some hypothetical (often doubtful) technological spinoffs.
It’s a slippery slope. With the contribution of the popular press, seldom interested in promoting science for its own value, but always on the lookout for jaw-dropping material, outlandish claims are printed, and unrealistic expectations created.
One could take a cynical, utilitarian view of this matter, and indeed many do. After all, funding basic research is a good thing for a number of reasons. Plus, nobody is really “lying”, here. It is true that basic research can be and has been the engine behind human progress for centuries. Does it really matter whether the premise on which this funding is obtained is just a tiny bit disingenuous, given that the ultimate outcome is good ? Yes, to many of us, even pragmatists like myself, it does matter, hence our reluctance to embrace the “snake oil salesman” approach, even if it means doing with less funding.

First of all, there is an issue of integrity. Basic research means venturing into uncharted territory; it is essentially unpredictable whether anything of practical value will ensue. Indeed, for every project that does eventually lead to some important application in a reasonably short time, there are many others that fail to produce anything more than scientific insight (always valuable, to be sure, but nothing out of which a commercial venture can spring). Because it is generally very difficult, if not downright impossible, to know a priori which line of research is technologically most promising, all scientifically sound projects are equally worthy of funding [1]. When an important application arises, especially of the type that transform society, it is often out of serendipity, i.e., it is nothing that was initially expected [2]. That one important application justifies, by itself, all the investment made; it is clearly, hardly an efficient way to proceed, but it is the only way we know of [3].
All of this ought to be made clear from the outset to those from whom funding is sought; otherwise, failure to deliver upon initial, exaggerated promises, can cause a backlash and widespread diffidence toward scientists, with negative repercussions that can last decades. There are several examples of research efforts carried out over the past two decades, for which funding was almost abruptly discontinued, or severely cut, (e.g., high-temperature superconductivity). For the most part, this was not for lack of scientific progress, but rather the result of the growing impatience of the funding agencies (largely reflecting that of the public at large), tired of waiting for the dazzling applications promised early on, that never materialized or went beyond the prototype stage.

Secondly, there are many, diverse, important reasons why basic science benefits society, and is worth pursuing; they have to do with human knowledge, of course, but also with education, and strengthening the technological base of a community and a nation through the training of qualified professionals. These are not minor aspects. Physicists may be better served in the long run by stating their case based on those reasons, even though it may be more difficult, for they are less obvious. Making it all about building a better toaster (or mostly about it), promotes a simple-minded, limited and prosaic view of science, unlikely to make it compelling to the general public, especially the young generations. In short, we should be working to promote a culture in which the question we are asked is not “what use will it have ?”, but rather “what impact will it have ?”


[0] Basic research is the type driven purely by curiosity. Its stated goal is the generation of knowledge. While certainly such knowledge often paves the way for practical applications, these are not the objective of basic research, at least at the outset.
[1] To be sure, many a physicist elect to carry out research in some targeted areas, deemed more likely to yield short-term results of practical technological value. In general, however, this type of research does not have a fundamental character; the basic principles and possible applications are known from the beginning, and one is mostly trying to control and/or amplify some desired physical effect that has already been observed.
[2] A recurring (bad) joke is that Einstein’s work on the photoelectric effect was almost certainly not motivated by his interest in elevators.
[3] Though the private sector is the primary beneficiary of any scientific breakthrough with important commercial applications, it can not be realistically expected to shoulder a significant portion of the basic research effort, precisely because of the inherent uncertainty and high level of risk. Funding basic research remains the job of governments.

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One Response to “What do physicists try to sell ?”

  1. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    > When someone asks me what is the “application” for such-and-such endeavor, I
    > go back a few steps and tell them. High energy experiments have one very clear
    > application – synchrotron light sources.
    Absolutely, but I still would not use this as an argument (well, not the main one, anyway) to promote particle physics research. I always have the sense that this type of justification does not have sufficiently long lasting an effect to base upon it requests for the increasingly powerful and expensive facilities that are inevitably needed.
    >Do you think Microsoft would not have patent the World Wide Web if they
    > had invented it?
    > the technological advances made for these experiments are often felt by the
    > public almost immediately. This is one aspect of big science that does not get
    > much publicity.
    Completely agree. But I think these are examples of the “serendipity” I was referring to, i.e., advances came unexpectedly, and had a revolutionary character. This happens on average fairly regularly, and of course is a strong argument in favor of basic science, but it is important that everyone understand that it is a largely unpredictable outcome.


    the above text was in response to the following comment:

    Submitted on 2008/01/12 at 8:59pm
    When someone asks me what is the “application” for such-and-such endeavor, I go back a few steps and tell them. High energy experiments have one very clear application – synchrotron light sources. Such facilities are now widely used to study everything from nanomaterial to properties of material, to imaging proteins and biomedical applications. Without basic need in particle physics, no one would have studied beam physics, and such devices would not have been possible.

    The need to share and view large amount of data from high energy physics experiment has driven advances in computing and also gave birth to the internet. Do you think Microsoft would not have patent the World Wide Web if they had invented it?

    While there may be difficulties in applying the “knowledge” gained from such fundamental research (application of research always lags many, many years behind), the technological advances made for these experiments are often felt by the public almost immediately. This is one aspect of big science that does not get much publicity.


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