I'm in a Ph.D program and feel like I'm trapped inside of a bubble most days. Attending lectures, daily research seminars, meetings, etc is all very interesting to me and I really like what I do. However, all the fancy models, theory, and discussions only pertain to those of us in the position to be talking about such ideas and can actually understand the concepts. To a general audience it seems like a bunch of fancy equations that don't apply to the real world and I have a hard time explaining my side and why it is important. In turn, I start doubting the importance of academic/non-academic research. During my first year, I felt like my professors who were theoretical were just creating their own jobs; of course you can prove that theorem because of those assumptions.

So my question is, what are some tangible (or non-tangible) benefits of academic research? Why should research exist when most of the papers will only ever be read by academics, while a very select few will be accepted by the general public.

Disclaimer : please don't take this as an elitist post. I wouldn't be able to understand a carpenters way of thinking.

Edit :

I want to add, what is the incentive to invest so much in research that doesn't go anywhere in hopes that decades down the road one paper will be recognized? I'm having a hard time understanding the billions of dollars funded in research each year in hopes of a significant achievement.

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    Euler Theorem was just a fancy equation for more than 200 years, until it became the key for RSA encryption. While this is not considered secured anymore, in the early days of internet, this was the key for security online. Without this Theorem, which for more than 200 years was just a "fancy equation which would never be applied in real life", internet would probably not be this spread today..... – Nick S Mar 15 '15 at 21:27
  • @NickS Great example. This and jakebeal's response below got me thinking about what the incentive is for to invest so heavily in research that may possibly go no where, or not be recognized for decades, or centuries, down the road – Amstell Mar 15 '15 at 22:13
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    Voting to close as too broad. There are far too many answers for this to be a good question for this site. – JeffE Mar 15 '15 at 22:16
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    @JeffE I don't think this is too broad. Too broad would be, "What are the benefits of research?" My question poses a more specific question about the incentives around funding research and the delayed benefits. – Amstell Mar 15 '15 at 22:19
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    It is worth noting that research investment is not heavy: in the US, for example, one of the largest research spenders in the world, last year only 3.4% of the government budget went to R&D, of which the vast majority is for applied work (e.g., new military field systems), not basic research as you are asking about. – jakebeal Mar 15 '15 at 22:37

The reason we do lots of strange and probably useless research is that predicting which bits will turn out to be important is only possible in retrospect.

Consider, for example, the internet on which we are discussing the apparent uselessness of research. It is now driving a significant fraction on the world economy. Twenty years ago, it was just starting to be publicly noticed. Twenty years before that, my company was playing with the prototype versions in experiments you likely would see as largely useless and known only to a small niche audience. Thirty years before that, in 1945, Vannevar Bush laid the basic principles of hyperlinked text, in what was clearly an ivory tower fantasy... and yet here we are.

Almost everything ever done in science is useless... But the parts that aren't make a real difference. Sometimes only a little, sometimes a lot, and sometimes they shift the fate of civilizations. You just have to hold a vision of how it might matter, and chase that dream with all your heart.

  • This is a great response. Thank you. I've updated my question to reflect what the incentive is for an institution to invest so much in hopes of a significant achievement that may be recognized now, or decades down the road, such as the internet, in your example. – Amstell Mar 15 '15 at 22:10
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    This is why research is mostly funded by long-sighted government organizations and foundations, not private companies. Much work on the Internet, for example, was funded by (D)ARPA, an agency whose mission is to avoid strategic technological surprise, and which has played a significant role in US technological power in the 20th century. In short: it costs a lot, but it really pays off long-term. – jakebeal Mar 15 '15 at 22:23

In addition to the answer regarding how some objects of pure research turn out to be monumentally important (and we don't know ahead of time which ones they'll be), there is another point worth considering.

What does it mean for something to "benefit" people/citizens/society? You might instantly think of rather tangible examples -- feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, ending wars, etc. But having a roof over your head and food in your stomach is not sufficient to be considered leading "the good life." What about fun? Entertainment? Seeing something new? Learning how to do something you couldn't do before?

Net value can be created in ways other than making a new material product enjoyed by every person on Earth. Consider money spent to fund poetry and archaeology and wilderness preserves. No one such project uniformly adds real wealth to everyone in the world (I might love camping but find poetry incomprehensible), but taken together they can have a grand impact on society as a whole. We end up with more knowledge about the world around us and about ourselves, opening up more options for how to spend our lives.

To take a concrete recent example, a certain somewhat successful movie used ideas from my own field of research, black hole accretion disks. This is an incredibly narrow field, to the point where most university astrophysics departments don't have anyone who deals with it. But the impact of the pure research went far beyond the few people capable of reading the scientific literature, in the form of providing new ideas that resulted in new creative works.

People pay real money for culture and entertainment. Some even get one step closer to research and pay real money to learn a subject just for fun (see especially continuing education programs). Now I'm not claiming we spend the "right" amount of taxpayer money on pure research, or that it's necessarily going "where it should" -- that's incredibly difficult to quantify. I'm just pointing out that there is real value in expanding humanity's corpus of knowledge.

Put another way, imagine living in a world with all your basic needs met but without any of the enrichment derived from fundamental research. Suppose someone were to come along with a Kickstarter idea -- learn as much possible about nature, from the history of the universe to cataloging all species of life on Earth, where much of the data and all of its interpretation would be made freely available to all. Wouldn't you, and indeed most people, give a little bit to that cause?

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