Science policy

Science policy

Science policy is usually considered the art of justifying, managing or prioritizing support of scientific research and development. It has three major venues: educational institutions, governments, and philanthropic organizations.

Most of the leading political issues in the United States have a scientific component. For example, renewable energy, Stem Cell Research etc. So "Science Policy" is the intersection between scientific research and public policy.

Businesses have a comparable function, but since they usually do it for profit, the goals, methods and justifications are very different. Science policy for business is usually called research and development.

Most developed countries usually have a specific national body overseeing national science (including technology and innovation) policy. In the case developing countries many follow the same fashion.

Examples of national science, technology and innovation policy bodies in developing countries:
Thailand: [ National Science and Technology Policy Committee]

Almost all people agree that "science should be supported". Beyond that, consensus quickly breaks down. There are several common positions:

Utilitarian science policy

Utilitarian policies prioritize scientific projects more highly if they reduce large amounts of suffering for many people. The pursuit of pleasure or luxury is far less supported, but nearly everyone supports the reduction of painful and debilitating diseases. The perfect example is arthritis research, which is well-supported.

Utilitarian policymakers characteristically advertise the numbers or people that can be helped by some research stratagem. In democracies, utilitarian science is an easy sell to the elected officials and foundation boards that control distribution of funds.

Research is more likely to be supported when it costs less and has greater benefits. Utilitarian research is characteristically rather unexciting for scientists because it often pursues incremental improvements rather than dramatic advancements in knowledge, or break-through solutions, which are more commercially viable. This influences the failure of some projects.

Basic science policy

Basic science attempts to stimulate breakthroughs. Breakthroughs often lead to an explosion of new technologies and approaches. Characteristically, basic science is cheap. One selects bright, energetic (usually young) theoreticians, and teams them with clever, practical people to test their theories. Once the basic result is developed, it is widely published; however conversion into a practical product is left for the free market.

This model does not automatically bring improvements. For instance, in a command economy the results of basic research are often not fully utilized. The most famous example is the Soviet Union. It supported huge numbers of scientists but their achievements were utilized mainly for military and space programs.

A particular problem is that the military research of even the freest of free market countries is a command economy. Many governments have developed risk-taking research and development organizations to take basic theoretical research over the edge into practical engineering. In the U.S., this function is performed by DARPA.

cholastic conservation

This is the policy of the impoverished. Rather than invest in new science, the policy is to efficiently teach all available science to those who can use it. In particular, the goal is not to "lose" any existing knowledge, and to find new practical ways to apply the available knowledge.

The classic success stories of this method occurred in the 19th century U.S. land-grant universities, which established a strong tradition of research in practical agricultural and engineering methods. More recently, the green revolution prevented mass famine over the last thirty years.

The focus, unsurprisingly, is usually on developing a robust curriculum and inexpensive practical methods to meet local needs. A particular problem with this approach is that there's now a continuing brain drain from impoverished countries (which often have quite good, though small, universities) to the wealthy countries.

Monumental science

This is a policy in which science is supported 'for science's sake,' i.e. basic research. This designation covers both large projects, often with large facilities, and smaller scoped research that does not have obvious practical applications and are often overlooked. The classic justifications of policymakers and scientists speak to knowledge of lasting worth and the basic building blocks of science. While these projects may not always have obvious practical outcomes, they provide education of future scientists and advancement of scientific knowledge.

Practical outcomes do result from many of these science programs. Sometimes these practical outcomes are foreseeable and sometimes they are not. A classic example of a monumental science program that led to a practical outcome is the Manhattan project. In the 1940s the Manhattan project was primarily a scientific, not engineering, venture to create a sustained nuclear reaction, ie an atomic bomb. An example of a monumental science program that produces unexpected practical outcome is the laser. Coherent light, the principle behind lasing, was first predicted by Einstein in 1916, but not created until 1954 by Charles H. Townes with the maser. The breakthrough with the maser led to the creation of the laser in 1960 by Theodore Maiman. The delay between the theory of coherent light and the production of the laser was partially due to the assumption that it would be of no practical use. [ Suplee, Curt (1999) "Physics In The 20th Century" Harry N. Abrams Inc, 58-63. ]

Technology development

This is a policy in which science is not supported, so much as engineering, the application of science. The emphasis is usually given to projects that increase important strategic or commercial engineering knowledge.

The classic justifications of such policymakers speak to increased defensive or commercial opportunities.

The most extreme success story is doubtless the Manhattan Project (that developed nuclear weapons). Another remarkable success story was the "X-vehicle" studies that gave the US a lasting lead in aerospace technologies.

These exemplify two disparate approaches: The Manhattan Project was huge, and spent unblinkingly on the most risky alternative approaches. The project members believed that failure would result in their enslavement or destruction by Nazi Germany.

Each X-project built an aircraft whose only purpose was to develop a particular technology. The plan was to build a few cheap aircraft of each type, fly a test series, often to the destruction of an aircraft, and never design an aircraft for a practical mission. The only mission was technology development.

A number of high-profile technology developments have failed. The US Space Shuttle failed grotesquely to meet its cost or flight schedule goals. Most observers explain the project as over constrained: the cost goals too aggressive, the technology and mission too underpowered and undefined.

The Japanese fifth-generation computer project (see fifth generation computer systems project for details) met every technological goal, but failed to produce commercially-important artificial intelligence. Many observers believe that the Japanese tried to force engineering beyond available science by brute investment. Half the amount spent on basic research rather might have produced ten times the result.


ee also

* Humanities policy
* Military funding of science
* Operations Research
* Public policy
* Haldane principle

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