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Our Daily Bleg: How to Justify Long-Term Scientific Research?

In response to our bleg request, Rafe Petty of the University of Chicago chemistry department wrote in with the following question(s). Let him know what you think in the comments section, and send future blegs to:

I was recently at a lecture by George Whitesides, one of the most well-known living chemists. He gave a very interesting lecture at the University of Chicago outlining some of the most pressing problems that we as chemists face in the near future.

A very interesting problem that he focused on was the difficulty in justifying long-term research funding in a capitalist economy, which recognizes financial return — not social return — thereby assigning little value to long-term research.

My question centers around if it is possible to “fix” this problem.

Is there an economic model that justifies long-term research spending? Whitesides mentioned in passing something about option theory. Is this the only model that works? Or are there other ways of encouraging/promoting long-term research spending?

Thank you for your insight. This is an important question for any number of scientific disciplines, and of particular interest to young scientists who will be soon entering their respective fields.