A reader writes:
I feel you're overreaching with this sentence from the recent discussion of racial difference and IQ: "But basic scientific research – the kind done at the NIH because no private funder would be interested – remains engaged in finding out truth for its own sake." I'm a former employee of a NIH press office, and was frequently asked by skeptics to justify research projects that weren't focused on a particular condition or cure. The answer is on the website of the National Institute for General Medical Sciences: "The mission of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) is to support research that increases understanding of life processes and lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention" (emphasis mine).
Scientists don't have the luxury of unlimited funding to seek out "truth". Basic scientific research may not have any obvious, immediate applications, but it is always conducted in the hope that it will have some utility in the future.
Sure. But what the NIH does is preserve a place for completely open-ended basic research. That's the point. The reader who wrote the first response to the thread follows up:
Research funding in the US is seldom done purely in the pursuit of "truth." The NSF (the federal agency most likely to fund research for the sake of "knowledge," let alone "truth") requires that grantees identify their work's impact on their chosen field and on society as a whole. The NIH requires statements of impact with all grant proposal submissions. Correctly, grant agencies prioritize proposals that have a clear, positive social impact (e.g., protease inhibitors), and deprioritize proposals with limited or, more importantly, unclear impact. Maintaining strict funding prioritization is critical in a universe where only 5-20% of grant proposals are funded.
Second, researchers do NOT enter their chosen field or adopt a research program simply to "find out truth for its own sake"; they are interested in making an impact. Sure, motives are muddied by politics, upbringing, commitments made earlier in life to what is and what is not important (e.g., the need to delineate gay versus straight in biological terms), and those chance encounters that open academic doors to certain individuals mostly by chance. But if you talk candidly to any aspiring undergraduate researcher about their future plans, most will tell at some point that they want to do something big and be the one who finds the truth that will change everyone's life (i.e., win the Nobel prize, be the hero). Truth, divorced from ego, history, and practicality, is just not a major driving force these kids (unless they're mathematicians, philosophers, or artists).
To my previous point, limiting your analysis to "racial panic" is a mistake. If I'm a new researcher, my chosen subject needs to pass a simple smell test: "Will I get enough out of this work to make it worthwhile in terms of what I must sacrifice?" Funding agencies must ask the same question. If you can find a sponsor and young, energetic, smart researchers excited enough to explore and publicize the causes of persistent racial differences in IQ, then you'll have a research program healthy enough to build critical mass. Until then, "truth" itself is just not sufficient to justify doing any kind of work. People seek impact, attention, good pay, and validation – and not necessarily in that order.
To argue that the pursuit of scientific truth is often not the sole motive for research seems to me obvious. But basic research – with far fewer obvious useful paths ahead of it and no guarantee of success in proving anything – is obviously distinguishable from targeted research paid for by venture capitalists and the like. My point about race and IQ is related: the very topic is so fraught with controversy that no research program on it would ever be funded in a mainstream university. And so we return to our original story. There's no grand conspiracy, no crude attempt to quash all research into race and IQ – just a toxic atmosphere around the subject so that those interested have every incentive to look elsewhere for research topics. That's all.