I suspect that most scientists, at some point in their professional career, have been asked asked by their family or friends what is it they actually do. I guess that only a small proportion have been able to convey the answer intelligibly, to the questioner’s satisfaction. But I further suspect, in the biological sciences at least, the proportion who are able to answer the question ‘why?’ is much, much smaller.
This is because the vast majority of biological scientists are not, despite what they put in their grant applications, directly involved in trying to cure anything. I worked for six years at the Medical Research Council, funded by the National Institutes of Health; yet my projects (generally) had nothing to do with preventing or curing disease. In fact, nuclear trafficking is such an integral part of cellular function that any defect at all usually results in instant death, which is generally incurable and likely to remain so. (It never stopped us from trying to get money from those places, though.) Yet our families and friends will often say to us ‘oh, and will that cure cancer?’ or something similar, when we’ve told them we’re working on a particular protein or gene or process. How many Cancer Research UK scientists are actually working on cancer?(My own mother had great hopes I’d cure cancer. For the longest time I didn’t know where to even start to answer her.)
So it was a great relief when I finally realized that I didn’t have to justify my existence, or my professional activities at least, in those terms. I can’t say there was a heavenly messenger or a blinding flash—I simply realized one day that I was doing science because, dammit, I like to find out how things work. Why did we want to find out how cells create the force required for amoeboid motility? Because we didn’t know, yet. You’re looking at the guy who at the age of 17 took apart a non-functioning washing machine to see how it worked—but who then put it back together as an intellectual exercise, and fixed it. The fixing was a by-product of the discovery process.
After this realization I would cheerfully tell friends and family that I wasn’t trying to cure cancer, or anything else: like a philosopher in the pure pursuit of knowledge I just wanted to see how things—in this case the ‘things’ happened to be people—worked. I believe that is the calling of scientists; to push back the borders of ignorance and to discover what else we don’t know (yet). Not, primarily, to give us penicillin and iPods and Apollo 11.
Yes, of course, the application of science through medicine and technology makes our lives longer, but not necessarily wider. That’s why we have art and poetry and literature and music: ‘useless’ subjects in purely economic or utilitarian terms, but absolutely, 100%, necessary. Science for the sake of science is just as important and useless as those other things.
Physics is like sex: sometimes something useful comes out, but that's not the reason we are doing it. — Richard P. Feynman
In fact, I maintain that science as it is practised today, costs us more than we get out of it. When we do get something out it’s because we’ve been working on it for years and years, without ever expecting a return. It’s actually very rare that industry funding of research yields a significant, positive ROI. Just look at the biotech boom and bust of a few years ago. Look at the failure of the Australian government to make money out of science. Science, monetarily, is a losing game: you have to put in so very much to science to get anything ‘usable’ out of it; and even then what you get is most often serendipitous. I do not believe in the trickle-down effect; that more money to science will stimulate the economy. Surely it’s the other way round? And yet, even if the material, the economic benefit of science is small, we should continue to do it. Because it makes us better human beings. Finding out how things work is almost a definition of humanity.
All of which means, that when the going gets tough, science needs to go. Science isn’t essential to our survival: rather it’s the mark of a civilization or society that has got its act together, and creates wonderful poetry and beautiful music and arresting literature. Science won’t save us–it’ll help us live longer, and it’ll give us an edge when we’re fighting for our lives against Nazi Germany, but it’s wonderfully and beautifully wasteful.
So when the country is in debt up to its nostrils, and hospitals and schools are suffering, we need cuts in the (publicly-funded) science budget. I don’t believe doing science is a total luxury, but we do have to face up to reality: it can not be funded unless we have a strong financial base. Which we don’t. And other things are more important, at least in the short term. The Labour Government is promising science budget cuts, and the Conservatives are saying the same. Get the country back on its pecuniary feet, and then (and only then) throw money at research. The unpalatable message is that we can’t afford a government that will fund science at the expense of the balance of payments.