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Eric Lander: “The Miracle Machine”

eric-lander-lab_6c81d9eb5d51We had missed this stupendous talk that Eric Lander (Broad Institute) gave in April at the National Math Festival gala dinner at the Library of Congress:

“There are bills in Congress to ensure the accountability of taxpayer dollars invested in science, to ensure that dollars are stretched efficiently and effectively – I quote from websites here – to ensure ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency.’ There are proposals that the National Science Foundation be required to publish a justification of each and every grant’s scientific merits and relevance to the broad national interest – that is, to the economy or defense.

“Now, how could you possible disagree with such prudent investing of American dollars? How could you possibly disagree with accountability, transparency? If I’m investing in real estate, I want to see a clear path to a return on my investment. If I’m investing in a start-up company, I might be willing to wait for a few years before I get my return, but I want to see a clear business plan. If I’m investing in building roads and bridges for a country, I’d like a clear connection between social investment and social return. So what can possibly be wrong with wanting to have a clear case for precisely how investments in basic research will pay off?

“The answer is: absolutely everything! Everything is wrong with it. Applying this kind of filter to basic research is a terrible strategy. It’ll guarantee that you will have ordinary returns – projects that pay off, at an ordinary rate. In the short term, you’ll get outputs. But you will miss the extraordinary returns. Fundamental research is fundamentally different than any other kind of investment. We’re all still struggling to understand it, but it is a remarkable thing: because time and time again, we’ve found that basic research can pay huge, out-of-proportion returns.”

Read the whole thing! It’s here.