Basic science put to the test of pragmatist sirens

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There is an idea of research policy that is making inroads in Italy and also in Europe: we should do as the U.S.A. does. Let us be guided by the tough but efficient market forces. No more luxuries, therefore. No more intellectually satisfying idleness. In order to spur economic growth, we must give up funding the "beautiful" basic science that produces knowledge rather than immediate profits; we should mobilize scientists paid with public money and use public funds to finance the rapid development of innovative products that can immediately be put on the market. All this is perhaps aesthetically less gratifying, but it is much more profitable.

This idea is almost always only hinted at. It is more a slogan than a plan. However, it produces real effects. Also because many economists and, especially, many economics commentators, more or less authoritative, think there is no better regulator available, including on matters of new knowledge production, than the market. Although it is only hinted at, although it is little more than a slogan, this idea produces tangible effects. In Italy, for example, funding for basic research - or, as we say today curiosity-driven research - tends to decrease and, in many areas, it risks to go down below the threshold of survival, as denounced by, among others, and with greater strength than others, Fernando Ferroni, President of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN), just as its researchers were obtaining outstanding scientific results, significantly contributing to the "capture" of the Higgs boson which made news all over the world. But the idea is producing tangible effects also in Europe.This pragmatist philosophy, in fact, largely inspired Horizon 2020, the European Union investment plan that will replace the Seventh Framework Programme from 2014 until, in fact, 2020.

Well, this idea is three times wrong. It preaches the false when it says that in order to move the economy, we need public investment and the mobilization of academic scientists in the rapid development of innovative products to put on the market. It preaches the false when it says that basic research or curiosity-driven research is a luxury we cannot afford in lean time. And finally, it preaches the false when it argues that this is the market-oriented model that is successful in the United States of America.

Scienzainrete tried, also just recently, to unmask the first two false statements, those relating to the decisive value, including from a financial standpoint, of publicly funded basic science It is now time to unmask the third false statement, according to which the the great ability for technological innovation in the United States is the result of direct investment by the federal government. The contrary is actually true. Since after the war and until now, in the United States there has been a clear pact between the federal government and private enterprises: the state funds basic or curiosity-driven science and businesses finance technological development.

This deal has been working well for over six decades. By now, the federal government annually invests in research well over 100 billion dollars. Firms invest in technological development well over $ 200 billion dollars. Public investment concerns both military and civilian research. Let us stick, for simplicity, to civilian research. The federal government has two major agencies through which it finances basic or curiosity-driven research: the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which selects and funds projects in the biomedical field and the National Science Foundation (NSF) that selects and funds research projects in the other scientific disciplines.
These are the two largest workshops where new knowledge is produced in the United States and worldwide. The financing mechanism is simple. Anyone can submit projects: groups and individuals working in public and private laboratories and universities. The projects are funded on the basis of their scientific quality, not on the basis of their possible immediate applications.Competition for grants (for funding) is very tough, but everyone knows that selection is based on merit. The conjunction of large resources available and effective selection ensures a high average quality of research.In the biomedical field, for example, 90% of totally new formulas in the production of drugs were produced by researchers funded by NIH, as noted by Marcia Angell, who for many years headed the New England Journal of Medicine, although investment in research and development of private enterprises is almost ten times higher.

So why do firms invest over 200 billion dollars annually in research and, above all, development? Well, because they seek to translate into commercial goods the new fundamental knowledge produced by scientists with public funds.

In reality, the circle of innovation is completed because the federal state, beyond the funding to NIH and NSF constantly proposes major projects - from the space conquest in the 60s to the war against cancer in the '70s to the construction of new weapon systems - which determine a tremendous demand for high technology. Demand that companies are encouraged to meet. The result is that precisely in the homeland of economic liberalism scientific research is substantially removed from the logic of the market. It is not market-oriented. It is technological development that, instead, is left to the market, although public intervention is anything but invisible and far from light.

Therefore, if in Italy and Europe we we intend to follow the American model, it is this model, which is not at all pragmatist and not at all laissez-faire, that should be followed.

In reality, even in the United States, as worldwide, the pragmatist sirens are singing their tune. And, according to some, their singing is getting tangible results. Professor Paolo Bianco, of the Department of Molecular Medicine at La Sapienza University in Rome, on Il Sole 24 Ore recently noted, for example, that the pressure of large pharmaceutical companies ( Big Pharma ) is leading the federal government into uncharted territory: the financing of the "rapid development of products that can be marketed quickly, directly by academic researchers and startup companies specially created for this purpose". An example of this is the 14 million dollars financing of strategies that can make possible the purchase of one's own genome sequence with just 1,000 dollars. Or even the establishment of the National Center for Advancements in Translational Science (NCATS), with a budget of no less than $ 2 billion per year, the goal of which is precisely that of obtaining what private companies are no longer able to do: the production of goods immediately usable and marketable.

The pragmatist approach seems to be the prevailing one also in the emerging scientific powers (China, India and Brazil). The risk is obvious: it is as if you keep on bringing new horses to drink from a river (the river of new knowledge), while upstream an ever taller dam is being built. Sooner or later the river dries up. And the horses will be left with nothing to drink.

This is not just a theoretical assumption. It already occurred in the past.As Lucio Russo said in a good book of a few years ago, The Forgotten Revolution , the excessive pragmatism of ancient Romans killed Hellenistic science. And, while the crime was being committed no one had eyes for noticing it any more. The end of science was one of the causes of the economic crisis that affected Europe for many centuries during the period that we call the "dark centuries" of the Middle Ages.

Almost two millennia had to go by, before science was rediscovered, and the economy set off again.

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