What research should we fund?

A commenter over on Cognitive Daily suggested that some of the research we report on isn’t practical and therefore shouldn’t be funded. I won’t single him out, but if you’re really interested, it shouldn’t be too difficult for you to find the original comment and my response.

The point seemed to be that if a research project seems frivolous, or if there’s not a readily apparent application that any layperson can understand, the research shouldn’t be funded. That’ll show those lazy scientists who’s boss!

You know what? I doubt this research was funded. Many of the best psychology experiments require only a computer and a few volunteers (and the computer is often optional as well). You’d be better off buying lottery tickets than applying for grant money for a project that doesn’t have a budget over $50,000. Granting agencies don’t have the time to mess with small-potato projects requiring, say, $1,000 to pay participants, or $3,000 for a summer research assistant.

In most cases, it’s easier to get a $100,000 grant than a $1,000 grant (unfortunately, granting agencies do actually read those applications, so no, you can’t budget $90,000 for your grand tour of Europe and $10,000 to pay a grad student to run the lab while you’re gone). People like their science the way they like their kitchens, plasma TVs, and SUVs: the bigger and more audacious, the better. Why spend $1 million on microgrants when you can spend $100 billion to send astronauts to Mars?

It’s a shame, though, because even though some of the most innovative research out there isn’t funded at all, there’s undoubtedly lots of great work that’s not getting done because it costs somewhere between $0 and $10,000. Is it worth turning down 10 million smaller projects in order to fly to Mars? We’ll probably never know, because a million little projects will never capture the public’s imagination the way one really big one will.

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