Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Vince Cable produces fallacious mitigations for further science funding cuts

... is what the title of this BBC article should read. [1]

Waving a banner of necessary austerity to reduce public services and support for the lower paid majority of society is borderline morally corrupt, but cutting science funding is outright stupid. It's the equivalent of trying to buoy up a sinking hot air balloon by throwing fuel canisters overboard. But I can't say my dismay is a surprise, even when stimulated by the words of a prominent member of a political party I recently supported as our best hope.

Vince Cable and David Cameron in India (from the
UK science is already under too much financial pressure, and has been for some time. Short term (2-4 year) projects are favoured too heavily over those that are more long term ('speculative'). Also, efforts I've heard of to commercialise the information products of university science have only left the universities out of pocket while lining those of layers and other middle men.

It is highly likely that the route to technological advancement is computationally irreducible, i.e. it is impossible to predict which research routes will yield important advances. Viewed from a great height scientific research is a process of memetic evolution. Evolution is not just (or rather rarely) about making gradual improvements to an organism, it mostly involves creating increasingly greater complexity by expanding into and creating as many new niches as possible, spreading tendrils out to every direction of phase space.

Adonna Khare -"Goldfish with Legs" (2008)
If mother nature were incarnate, and on a tight budget for biological evolution, would she have given the go ahead for fish with hydro-dynamically goofy protrusions, unable to know that these whimsical contrivances would eventually be used as the fist ever legs, spawning a vast new evolutionary tree of mammals. Please don't get caught up on my inadequate metaphor here, what I am trying to say is that limiting resources to the 'most promising' could create detriment well beyond a linear contraction in output.

In a previous post [2] I speculated that financial bubbles might be a boon for better businesses/technology, fostering evolutionary explosions after mass extinctions. But these austerity measures are non cyclical: a more gradual squeezing. What is more, the survival criterion are arbitrarily biased away from the most beneficial break throughs, towards short term money spinners and well entrenched "internationally excellent research".


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