I hope this question may fit this site:

My friends and I were having an argument based loosely on these two opposing views. One side claims that there is too much spending and financial backing by governments on research in non-applied areas. By "non-applied" I mean that given that we answer the question originally proposed there is no practical real-world application forthcoming from it. The example used most often was high-energy physics and the standard model.

The opposing view claims that the funding (by governments, but subtract defence costs for instance) for theoretical research is already comparatively low, taken against research in engineering or applied sciences.


How can we compare these claims? The closest source I found online is from the OECD:


These charts however do not break expenditure on natural sciences into subfields.

Also, please share opinions backed by some stats, please!

  • 4
    Theoretical physics departments were some of the first in the 20th century to work on neural networks, many parts of the math of machine learning are borrowed from mathematical methods developed in physics. Fundamental research and its necessity can hardly be measured financially vs. applied sciences. That most of the nobel prizes go to US universities although the funding system is probably the most capitalistic/competitive shows the fundamental importance of fundamental research. High-energy/particle physics is not representative for theo. physics, as the outcome ever was low and will be... May 10, 2019 at 2:29
  • 3
    One thing I feel is nowadays people are a lot more short-sighted that they are unwilling to fund the thing that might be beneficial on long term but appear to be "useless" now (like most of the theoretical field).
    – user22080
    May 10, 2019 at 5:50
  • 1
    From a libertarian/neoliberal point of view, a case could be made that governments should only fund basic research. After all, applied research is an investment that will pay off (or not, with a certain risk), so there's a market for it; and government funding will only crowd our private investment. By contrast, there is no market for fundamental research, because the risks are too high or the valorization might even be impossible (philosophy and history don't yield self-driving cars); thus, to the extent that society still values this kind of knowledge, it needs the government to step in.
    – henning
    May 10, 2019 at 6:49
  • I should note that the two views you sketch are not contradicting. The total amount of funding available to theoretical research is indeed lower than for applied research (at least here in Europe), but there are still people arguing that it should be more lopsided (i.e., there is still too much money going into research without clear applications).
    – xLeitix
    May 10, 2019 at 11:32
  • 1
    (part of this reasoning is also that most theoretical research is inherently cheap - a mathematician needs much less money to produce top-level research than some applied fields, which may need to pay for equipment, technicians, lab managers, programmers, and an army of grad students to get anywhere)
    – xLeitix
    May 10, 2019 at 11:37

1 Answer 1


History is generally on the side of pure government subsidized research. There are some ideas or projects so far removed from possible commercialisation or such risky for private enterprise that it only makes sense for governments to fund these.

The most obvious example is electricity.

“Why, sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it.”

The quote is attributed to Michael Faraday in reply to William Gladstone, then British Chancellor of the Exchequer (minister of finance), when asked of the practical value of electricity in 1850. The quote is disputed but still relevant to illustrate the general point that some of the most fruitful ideas originated in research of no apparent utility.

Another example would be X-rays and a more recent example would be the laser, "a solution in search of a problem" according to its inventor T. Maiman (who at the time was working for a private firm).

On a more abstract level, Robert Wilson, appearing in front of a panel to lobby in favour of a new accelerator at Fermilab, declared

In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.

Overall, the investments in basic sciences have funded generations of graduate students who have gone on to be productive (and tax paying) members of society. Giving a bit of $$ to pure research keeps researchers (often time university faculty) busy outside of class times, enriches courses and trains or exposes future professionals to cutting edge technology and concepts. Even with an extremely low probability of success (intolerable to private enterprise), a single breakthrough will pay for itself many many times over.

  • 2
    Fundamental research is the food web of science. The individual units of knowledge may be isolated, but they may coalesce into new landscapes of knowledge. Let's take an example: Archimedes had an early understanding of integration. This knowledge was not taking off then - only when a larger collection of scientists began to understand the landscape of calculus (Cavalieri, Fermat, Galilei, Kepler, Newton) the idea could take off with formidable success. In other words it's investment in fundamental research on a wider scale that opens up new fields. May 10, 2019 at 6:14
  • “Why, sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it.” - Doesn't that loosely translate to "There will be practical applications soon" (... so you can tax them)?
    – sgf
    May 11, 2019 at 11:27

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