Watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart yesterday, I was shocked to learn that one of the co-advisers to both Clinton’s and now Obama’s science and technology team was being interviewed. Harold Varmus, a distinguished scientist was introduced on the interview segment of the show, which you can watch here, and discussed the various intricacies and complications posed by balancing pure science with lobbying for government funds. One of the points he made was quite profound: “Some of the most important advances come from the part of medical science that nobody is an advocate for: doing basic science and learning how things work.” It got me thinking – without the pressures of government for results in specific areas, and fast, how might scientific research be changed with a set of funds that could be allocated anywhere. Of course, this is not realistic in anyway, but it is some food for thought; by removing the restrictions on where the money went, it is very possible that scientific progress could balloon.
Perhaps even more interesting was the bit about the need for political savvy to get anywhere in terms of funding for government projects. It is somewhat ironic that the men with the degrees in science need to also learn the political machine, years after they’ve left school. (It’s almost as ironic as Varmus’ switch from English lit to med school). Without money, there is no research, and without research, there is no progress, leading to stagnation of society, economy, and growth. Science is perhaps the one way out of the mess we have gotten ourselves in – global warming, energy issues, environmental damage, human diseases; the list goes on. The situation the world economy is in now is not an encouraging sign that science will get all the funding it needs. Now, more than ever, we are going to need that ironic mix of political and laboratory science if the younger generations are to see a world even remotely similar to today's.