Thomas Edison was one of several people linked to the invention of the light bulb. This is one example given by UK writer Matt Ridley to show that technological innovation can spring up naturally. Credit: Bettman Premium/Corbis
Social Selection Nature’s snapshot of science on social media

Pure science does not always stimulate innovation — rather, technological change often springs naturally from human inventiveness. Writer Matt Ridley makes this provocative point in a 23 October essay in The Wall Street Journal called ‘The Myth of Basic Science’ that fuelled heated and thoughtful responses on social media about the role and benefits of science and technology. Ridley says that government-funded basic research is not the only path toward innovations that improve society. But others countered that publicly-funded research has many benefits. “The causes of technical and social change are manifold, and scientific research forms just part of the ecosystem, but this doesn’t make it inconsequential,” wrote Jack Stilgoe, a science-policy expert at University College London, in an article commenting on Ridley’s essay for The Guardian. Ridley responded to his critics on Twitter, saying that basic research is important but that government is not the only way to fund it.

Ridley takes aim at the popular ‘linear model’ that holds that basic science fuels new technology, which, in turn, benefits society. “When you examine the history of innovation, you find, again and again, that scientific breakthroughs are the effect, not the cause, of technological change,” he writes. The steam engine did not come about because of breakthroughs in the science of thermodynamics, he notes, but thermodynamics certainly benefited from its invention.

Some researchers disagreed. Knowledge of thermodynamics greatly improved the efficiency of later steam engines, wrote Anton Howes, a PhD student at King’s College London who studies the British Industrial Revolution, in a blog post. “I strongly suspect that science plays an ever more important role in innovation. See nuclear power reactors, bio-engineering, many pharmaceuticals, and the development of new materials,” Howes wrote. Eric Topol, a cardiologist at the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, California, commented on Twitter that Ridley oversimplified the flow of knowledge between science and innovation:

Ridley went on to argue in his essay that “there is less need for government to fund science: Industry will do this itself” — a timely and controversial point, given that the UK government is currently undergoing a spending review that could affect research. Ridley, a member of the House of Lords, the second chamber of the UK Parliament, notes that large government investments in science do not necessarily translate to more breakthroughs, and that discoveries that are often touted as resulting directly from public funding — such as the Higgs boson or the Internet — tell us “nothing about what would have been discovered by alternative funding arrangements”. Money flowing from industry or philanthropists might have resulted in entirely different types of breakthrough, Ridley argues.

Roger Pielke Jr, a science-policy expert at the University of Colorado Boulder, tweeted that some of Ridley’s points are in line with his own work, which holds that the concept of basic research has become a political symbol that is sometimes detached from its value to the public.

But a large amount of science-policy research suggests that public funding of basic research does in fact stimulate further investment in technology development, wrote Stilgoe. He added in an email interview: “All the evidence is that public science funding leads to public benefit, which includes attracting private sector investment, as much through highly-trained people as through new technologies.”

Ridley struck back against his critics in a series of tweets.

In an email to Nature, Ridley said that people have over-reacted to his article. He says that he is not calling for cuts in government science spending. “Given that governments do spend money on things I am very keen that a big chunk of that spending is on science rather than some other things,” Ridley says. “I do nonetheless hope that governments bear in mind the risk of crowding out [other funding sources] and the possibility that they might not be getting their priorities right.”

The debate seemed to boil down to differences in opinion about how much science should be publicly or privately funded. Derek Lowe, a pharmaceutical chemist, wrote in a blog post about Ridley’s piece: “The article isn’t so much about ‘The Myth of Basic Research’, it’s about the myth of who should be funding it, and what basic research really is.”