Why Spend Public Funds on “Curiosity-Driven Science”?

Posted on June 19, 2016 by Dr. Lynda

In tough economic times, it’s easy for people to rant about balancing budgets by limiting public spending to only the “must-do” list. That sound logical, but is it a knee-jerk response we should consider more closely?

After today’s EWC article, you might end up being the smartest person in the room, the next time you are involved in that kind of conversation! Once again, asking better questions will bring us to a better answer.

Image: Colored map of the Mars landscape around a crater taken from Curiosity Driven Science
This is an elevation map used by the rover named CURIOSITY, as it CLIMBS the 3.5 billion-year-old Mt. Gale on Mars’ surface. Source: European Space Agency // NEW YORK TIMES

Maybe the question should be, “What’s the return on investment for curiosity-driven science?”

The answer surprised me!

First, it’s important to understand that there are two basic kinds of science being done since the dawn of humankind. There is science being done with a specific outcome or application in mind. On the other hand, there is science driven purely by curiosity, with no goal in mind – Curiosity-Driven Science – and that’s what we are investigating today.

In my research, I found that some critical aspects of our modern world came out of science that had no original, purposeful goals. Curiosity-driven science led to the discovery of penicillin and X-rays. The Big Bang Theory, which underpins everything we know about the universe, came from an accidental discovery during basic research. We can even thank Curiosity Driven Science for the discovery of electricity in the 17th century.

Image: A 17th C scientist using curiosity driven science to work with electricity
Source: D. Appleton and Co. // AWESOME STORIES.

Remember also that Penicillin and Xrays looked like a completely useless discovery for decades, and electricity was just a fun fact for over 150 years until other technologies caught up and it could be useful. No doubt, some of the discoveries we are making in Augmented Reality Research, on the International Space Station, and at the Hadron Collider, could be deemed useless… but only for now.

Let’s imagine where civilization would be now without those discoveries.

Image: Carl Sagan defends Curiosity driven science with a great quote about corn
Source: LGSEEDS.RO

We could probably wrap this article up right there if all we were demonstrating was that science, for its own sake, is a tremendous investment, even in tough economic times, but we’ve actually come across a marvelous TED Talk that will add some emotion this topic deserves. (If you haven’t come upon TED.com yet, check out our EWC’s Must-See TED Talk page!)

Here’s Brian Cox, a British Physicist who is fast becoming as well-loved as Neil deGrasse Tyson with his style for presenting science in an entertaining way. Some say he will inherit Carl Sagan’s, and David Attenborough’s place in that genre some day soon.

Brian Cox has a wonderful way of making science feel accessible to us all through his TED Talk and you can’t help but share is wonder and enthusiasm.

See what you think after hearing this line of thought…

Via: TED 1

Fabulous, huh?

Let’s look at a real example of the return on investment for just one example out of tens of thousands of productive and successful projects funded by governments all over the world: The Curiosity Mission, which put a rover on Mars to carry out experiments for the sake of expanding our understanding of the universe.

Of course, that is pure curiosity-driven science and some would make the precise argument that this project is excessive given the current economic climate.

Image: Curiosity driven Science has led us to mars
Source: METLY

But here’s what it comes down to: The Curiosity Mission has had a total cost of 2.5 billion dollars. Sounds like a lot until you do the math, spreading the cost over its 8-year project. That comes out to a cost of $1 per year, per American.

Most of us lose far more than that in between our car seats every month!

And what are we getting for our $1 per year?

Well, if we start with purely practical terms; that’s a heck of a lot of jobs for highly-skilled engineers, managers, scientists, programmers, component manufacturers, interns and independent contractors from 20 different states.

There will be countless possibilities for earth-based applications and spinoffs from the technologies used in the Mars project.

Image: Curiosity Driven Science is helping us study lakes like this oasis in Chad
Source: STEFAN KRÖPELIN // FORECAST

Then there are the passions for science ignited in our youth. No telling how many students will be inspired to go into science and technology careers by the ongoing successes of the Curiosity Mission. And they will be the thought leaders and problem-solvers of our future.

I found a great quote in an article on The Space Review  that demonstrates one of the most important benefits of Mars exploration:

Children will be inspired that they live in a world able to achieve such feats and will work to better educate themselves to be part of a bright future where all kinds of “new worlds” can be reached: a future where cancers are cured, where the environment is protected with pacts that actually work, a future where new financial systems are created for our poorest nations to rise up. A world where technology will once again make rapid and radical advances as ever greater numbers of youth begin to once again attack the challenges ahead of them, inspired by history making realities such as space travel to Mars. 2

Image: Two little girls loving scienec

Well, that’s it for today on EverWideningCircles.com! A lot of food for thought there.

I’ll have to say the next time I might want to grumble about the value of research into a vaccine for Hookworm , or shellfish waste, I’m going to remember the lessons of curiosity-driven science and remember, the next big thing – like electricity – might be found while studying deep-sea bacteria!

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Stay open, hopeful and curious!

~ Dr. Lynda

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