A lecture given by Professor Shirley M Tilghman, Princeton University on 8 October 2015 at the Royal College of Physicians, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Wolfson Foundation, today rings as true as ever.
“It is common to pay lip service to the central role of basic research in economic progress and future prosperity, and you may be wondering why I am harping on such an obvious point. The reason is that over the last decade I have observed in both the US and the UK a perception among many scientists that the pendulum that swings along the continuum between basic and applied science has shifted dangerously in the direction of applied research. The cause is almost certainly the persistent after shocks of the Great Recession of 2008-9, which have had a depressing effect on total funding in both countries. As total R&D funding has either flattened, or in the case of the US, actually declined, it is human nature to seek short term, clearly demonstrable outcomes over uncertain and unpredictable longer-term benefits when allocating scarce resources. Scientists are not immune, nor unresponsive, to this message. Once the perception that short-term outcomes are preferred by funders takes hold in the scientific community, scientists become more risk averse, which leads to less innovative work, and ultimately the quality of science declines. If there is one metric I would watch closely in the coming years, it is degree to which fundamental research continues to thrive. Are we continuing to generate the seed corn for the next explosive crop of scientific discoveries?
There is an important role for philanthropic organizations like the Wolfson Foundation to play in this ecosystem. Large government agencies tend to be risk averse even in the best of times. By their willingness to make large bets on big ideas, this is a moment when private charities can have an outsized impact on the future progress of science.”