Were we prepared for this?

Subrato Banerjee & Bhawna Israni

We scientists: Our project will benefit mankind in 200 years!

Our funders: Come back in 200 years then!

We need science to remain a slow enterprise. We want to be sure that the medicines we take actually cure us. Our preference for this certainty, in turn, demands that the researchers, who have developed our prescribed drugs, have carefully spent years of their time perfecting them. These intervening years see the development of an idea into a testable hypothesis, which must survive the demands of experimentation, satisfying which makes way for publication in scientifically peer-reviewed journals for other scientists to test and evaluate the findings – on surviving this rigor of scientific interrogation, the findings are finally made public through general media, to the eventually long-term benefit of the public. Here’s the surprise – regardless of what we want, science has always naturally been a slow enterprise – the four examples that follow should convince anyone.

  1. William Hamilton (Irish mathematician) thought out the idea of ‘quaternions’ (four-dimensional generalization of ordinary numbers) which had no practical interest at that time (1843). This eventually turned out to be a surprisingly effective tool in modern robotics and computer graphics – a field that formally developed more than a hundred years later!
  2. Johannes Kepler talked about the most efficient way to pack spheres in three-dimensional space (again, not very useful way back in 1611). Today it is applied to the most efficient transmission of information over noisy channels.
  3. The most important breakthroughs in the development of secure ciphers today come from age-old advancements in pure mathematics!
  4. A ‘new geometry’ pioneered by Bernhard Riemann dealing with curved spaces, much later turned out to be ideal for Einstein’s general theory of relativity (and a new theory of gravity) – and today our artificial satellites are a consequence of this understanding.

The reason why we feel reasonably safe while making an online transaction using our credit card is because certain properties of prime numbers were known to us way before credit cards even existed. Those who uncovered the necessary realities never thought about credit cards – the endeavor of discovery, like art, was for its own sake. The point is that the benefits from science are rarely immediate. Therefore, a system that incentivizes immediate benefits cannot be applied to sciences.

Funding in the pure sciences is today driven by myopic interests that demand almost immediate impact that is both tangible and measurable (the funders want to look good … in their own lifetimes). This has created natural contradictions in the functioning of the sciences in terms of the emerging trade-offs between present and future interests. Science journalist, Matt Simon talks of someone who despite the excruciating pain, exercised presence of mind by immediately showing up to the hospital, carrying the very asp caterpillar (covered in plastic) that bit him. Could the doctors have helped? The asp caterpillar’s venom isn’t as well understood as (say) that of a rattlesnake because not many grad students have devoted their lives to understanding them. Lot of such propitious moments of scientific discovery, have been lost to business-driven myopia. Frank Gannon (Director and CEO, QIMR BerghoferMedical Research Institute) says that “the problem with medical research is not the science, it’s the funding – there simply isn’t enough of it.” Funders are clearly reluctant to fund scientists unless they promise ‘immediate measurable benefits’.

Had Stephen Hawking been alive, he would have cherished the first photograph of a black-hole that we all celebrated last year – the scientist always delights in the thought that his/her research will eventually outlive himself/herself. The empirical discovery of black-holes kept us far from being surprised, for the theoretical speculations of their existence predated the actual observations by several decades. But how does one counter the completely unknown? The current Covid19 pandemic makes one wonder. The world saw a number of epidemics before, from SARS to EBOLA. The enemy was the same- a virus! Was a blueprint available then after many such encounters with these viruses? And could we have had a better understanding of the course that the disease took? The current pandemic did take the scientific community a little by surprise, with the huge number of asymptomatic carriers. The sheer volume of human casualty has surpassed that of the previous outbreaks.

Were we prepared for this? What lessons from infection research shaped our response to the current pandemic? And most importantly – are we investing enough in research? That scientific research funding has progressively declined in the last few decades, despite warnings in the form of periodic epidemics, shows that we may not be prepared for future pandemics. Today, we are desperate to find a cure – and by the time (if at all) a cure is found, the sheer volume of lives lost will make this at best, comparable to a pyrrhic victory.

The world needs a steady budget for scientific funding, for the fundamental process of learning must go on. We cannot afford disruptions in science fellowships (even due to elections that often necessitate this shift in public and regulatory spending). A short-sighted attitude towards science has almost eliminated the fields of pure mathematics and theoretical physics (with a relatively handful of researchers who today remain loyal to these respective fields). While there are no immediate monetary measures of benefits that these fields have to offer us, we can at least begin by asking ourselves if any of the four examples of scientific endeavor that we have cited earlier in this article, will receive research funding today. We conclude with the parting thought:

A wise ruler is that who does not actively seek conflict, but remains prepared for it nevertheless!


Subrato Banerjee
is a behavioural economist with interests in applied game theory, statistics and industrial organisation.




Bhawna Israni is a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena, Germany.