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Monday 22nd September 2014, 09:11 BST | Cambridge,UK

Commerce or curiosity?

Will Chambers assesses the problems that face researchers when they juggle monetary issues with the desire to pursue what they are most drawn to intellectually

Money and science are inseparably linked. Substitute science for any other word and that statement still holds true. The fact it does is the very crux of the problem. When it comes to scientific funding, there is a trinity of issues; where the funding comes from, who receives it, and what influence it has on their research.

Much debate revolves around the curiosity versus commerce argument. Should science as a purely intellectual pursuit receive the same funding as that with direct, immediate applications? The fact that the two are not mutually exclusive further clouds the issue. Few wouldn’t agree that medical research tends to change lives, and can do so very quickly. But advancements that have stemmed from pure curiosity have revolutionised society. Complex numbers, cryptography and computing are examples of this.

The argument is complicated further by blue sky science (scientific research in domains where “real-world” applications are not immediately apparent) demanding public funding. This is due to its lack of instant commercial value. Considering the current economic climate it comes as no surprise that such funding has come under scrutiny and been subject to much politicking.

Helen Cahill Keeping it clean: how is scientific research affected by the group that funds it?

Even more irksome for many a researcher are those funded projects that have little scientific merit. Nanoputians were the source of much frustration in the Chemistry department. For those unfamiliar with the term, Nanoputians are “an array of 2-nm-tall anthropomorphic molecules in monomeric, dimeric, and polymeric form”. Apparently they inspire the masses to become captivated by organic synthesis. It is a less than persuasive argument. From time to time however similarly nonsense experiments, or at the very least, the people behind them, go on to make real differences. Andre Geim is the only person to ever win both the Nobel and Ig Nobel prize in physics, the former for experiments on the structure of Graphene (the latter was for magnetically levitating a live frog). Graphene may well transform many present technologies yet was discovered by a man “mucking about in a lab”. When by definition the outcomes of research are unknown and unpredictable, who is able to judge the relative merit of a project?

The potential biasing effect of the funding source is a less discussed but unavoidable issue. Inevitably, whoever is funding the research has a certain outcome in mind. Funding is likely to continue for findings that align with that outcome. It’s difficult to directly measure the impact of this on open-minded research. On the one hand environmental studies certainly seem to have been prime targets for such bias. Yet at the same time I’d like to believe in science’s integrity such that there is rarely a conscious attempt to fix results in such a way.

This discussion may have been somewhat circular, to have touched on a number of problems without resolving any of them. The reason for this is that no one has the optimum solution. Many a better qualified individual than me will admit to being unable to tease the intertwined issues apart so they can take a conclusive stance. Such uncertainty should not discourage debate though; it is by being aware of the limits of our own knowledge by which we expand them.

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