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How Much Should We Spend on Science?

William Press delivered his presidential address to the AAAS last week, asking conference attendees to consider the beauty and benefits of science. Learn more.

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In this short video William Press, outgoing president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reflects on “the beauty and benefits of science,” the theme he chose for his presidential address at the association’s recent conference. Press’ term as president formally ended at the conclusion of the conference, held Feb. 13-17 in Boston.

“The beauty of science has often been those aha moments when you’re working on something fairly mathematically,” says Press, the Warren J. and Viola M. Raymer Professor in Computer Science and in Integrative Biology. “Then at some point you realize the structure in the equations, the way the equations are working, exactly mimics some set of data about the real world, something that hasn’t been understood previously. And then you say this is beautiful.”

Press is a vice-chair of the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and one of the co-authors of “Transformation and Opportunity,” a report to the president about the future of basic science and research funding in the United States.

In an op-ed published this month in Science Magazine, Press argues that the public deserves far more credit than it gets from politicians for its appreciation of the long-term benefits of funding scientific research. He writes:

“Polls show that in the United States, the public ranks science as one of the most prestigious occupations, along with firefighters, doctors, nurses, teachers, and military officers. Thus, science is in the company of professions whose benefit to people is immediate. Yet, when I ask nonscientists about the benefits of science, few give answers that imply the short time horizons that motivate most economic activity. They like science because, among other things, it can lead to longer, healthier lives; protect the planet and feed humanity; and channel and empower the natural idealism of young people; and it satisfies a basic human need to understand the world.

“The public recognizes science as having long-term, often idealistic, goals, yet accords scientists a level of respect otherwise reserved for ‘immediate helper’ occupations. The combination suggests an instinctive understanding of heavy-tailed distributions and the patient investor’s bounty. Put differently, the public realizes that the beauty and benefits of science are inseparable as a single long-term enterprise. Elected public officials worldwide would do well to listen to this particular wisdom of crowds.”