Houston! We Have A Nomenclature Problem

A recent Wall Street Journal article named The Myth of Basic Science by Matt Ridley makes a fascinating argument that government spending on basic science does not result in technical innovation. The article argues that, instead, most innovation results from tinkering, and only after the tinkering results in new technology, will science catch up to fully explain it.

It uses steam as an example where it notes that the science of thermodynamics did not mature until after basic steam engines were invented and operating. In other words, the article argues that science simply fills in the knowledge gaps of innovative ventures.

It then goes on to argue that therefore government sponsored basic science is a not an effective investment.

As often is the case, Wall Street Journal and its writers raise an interesting point but jump to conclusions rather than fully working through the problem.

First it is important to get our nomenclature right, and then it is significant to figure out what the government is really spending money on.

Let’s begin with the term science. This term is too often invoked when the concept under discussion is not science at all, but, rather, engineering. Let’s begin with one of my favorite misnomers: Rocket science.

Rocket Science is something that Isaac Newton described with his laws of motion and universal gravitation (after the Chinese had already invented rocketry centuries before him). Newton established that stuff and nothing happened until the early 1900’s when tinkerers, who either were named rocket scientists by journalists and politicians, or called themselves rocket scientists, started building devices that today we can call modern rockets. However, these people were not scientists at all.

They used long established scientific principles and turned them into useful things. There is only one name for such activities and that is called engineering.

I have looked far and deep, and actually I have not seen anything that deals with modern rockets where a scientist was needed to add basic scientific concepts to the design of rockets between Newton and today. I am an aerospace engineer by training and every time I hear the expression “It is not rocket science”, I cringe. In essence that expression is an oxymoron. Rocket Science is Newtonian physics; a high school subject. As such, it is nothing special. If one were to say “It is not rocket engineering”, the expression would make sense, since rocket engineering is very, very difficult. Rocket engineering is not mathematically complex, but, from a design and implementation point of view, it is an incredible juggling act, where only the most clever, innovative and daring minds will succeed.

Still there are true scientists at NASA and I love the stuff they do. These are the people that study the universe and that discover new concepts and principles with the use of rockets and space flight as their research tools. Weirdly those scientists, can often be more clearly described as explorers or discoverers. On the other hand, not all rockets and space flight are used for science. Lots of rockets and space ventures exist for commercial or political purposes.

Going on with terminology, interestingly, the terms tinkerer and engineer have much more overlap than scientist and engineer. Anybody, including a scientist or an engineer, can be a tinkerer. While Robert Oppenheimer, the lead developer of the atomic bomb, was a cracker jack physicist, and, as such, a scientist by training, on the bomb he functioned as a tinkerer and if one calls him a scientifically trained tinkerer, one should call him an engineer. In effect, in building an atomic bomb, he was doing next to no science and mostly engineering.

The term “innovator” has little to do with a person’s educational or professional background. Anybody can be an innovator, and anybody can be an innovator in just about any realm, even with very limited training in a particular realm. Too often some innocent novice will walk into my comfortable engineering universe and remark: Why doesn’t anybody ……… And I realize that I have once again been cold cocked into a paradigm shift of my universe by an outsider. And all that is left to do for me is to thank the innovator, …. and to figure out if the innovation makes physical (scientific and engineering) sense. Not all innovative thinking will result in success, but not listening to innovative thinkers because they might change the status quo can only be described as short sighted or over conservative.

From this discussion it can be concluded that most writing about science and engineering uses sloppy terminology and that is where the Wall Street Journal fails to clearly lay out an important issue.

The article makes many points and we could discuss it point by point, but in the end the article misses the point because it uses sloppy terminology. And the point is really interesting and really important and really useful.

This is the point: Innovation cannot be paid up front; it comes from fresh thinking on complex and useful issues with real goals.


Without the study of complex and useful issues with real goals, there is no innovation.

An innovation moves the pegs of humanity. It improves competitiveness both human against human and human against nature.

The study of complex and useful issues with real goals can range from sinister (weapons for world domination) to deeply humanitarian (the curing of diseases or the protection of the environment), but innovation will show up with both types of goals. This, in turn, makes a pretty good argument for not focusing more than absolutely necessary on weapons research.

It should not be difficult to realize that without real goals, or without usefulness, there are many fewer instances where innovation can be usefully applied. (An innovation on a useless thing is still a useless thing. This is incredibly common; think corn ethanol, or financial derivatives)

Meanwhile, innovation can express itself in science or engineering (and also social) concepts.

A society that engages in the study of complex and useful issues with real goals will eventually arrive at innovative approaches, and innovative approaches provide wealth in all its forms.

As such, a society that funds the study of complex and useful issues with real goals will lead in innovation.

The funding of complex and useful issues with real goals can be provided by either private industry or government.

It is foolish for government to spend money on complex and useful issues that can be studied by private enterprise (that have profit potential).

Meanwhile, there are complex and useful issues that private enterprise will not get involved in and that should then be government funded.

There are lots of those instances of public funding for the study of complex issues in history, some of which were only marginally useful, while others paid off spectacularly. The most brilliant governments are those that provide goal based initial funding on those non-commercially attractive, but useful issues and then release the innovations achieved to the public when the issue becomes commercially viable (internet), thereby creating national or global wealth.

The central constraint about government funded “research” is to determine whether it is aimless looking, or the study of a complex and useful issue with real goals.  And that is where the Wall Street Journal article may have a point. Pure science (or basic science) the activity of looking for things where nobody is looking, is not a good mechanism for innovation, but pure science that aims to explain the nature of an innovation is vital for continued progress.

The latter is often called applied science, which is interesting, since if pure science is unapplied science, we can see that pure science does not drive innovation. It may be fun to do, but one should not expect it be a great engine for innovation.

Maybe like rocket science, the term pure science is a misnomer too, let’s call it unapplied science, it will prevent false expectations.