Dan Sarewitz has a rather provocative commentary in Nature this morning, where he suggests that proposals to increase basic research may be good politics, but questionable policy.

The headline alone is probably enough to get some science-advocates’ blood boiling, whether they go on to read the piece or not: “Double trouble? To throw cash at science is a mistake” does nothing if not throw down the gauntlet to an already sensitive science community.

Beyond the provoking banner, Dan raises  serious if uncomfortable issues – there must come a point where investment in science is balanced within a much broader social context, and the consequences of not allocating funds elsewhere are weighed against the benefits of supporting research – especially blue skies research.  But reading the piece reminded me of an associated debate which seems to get rather less air time – the personal responsibility that comes with government research funding.

It’s an inescapable fact that, for every dollar, pound or Euro that governments invest in research, someone, somewhere is getting less money to spend on what they think is important.  In some cases, re-allocations may have minor social consequences.  In others, reduced spending elsewhere in favor of science may be profound impacts on the lives of individuals – especially those at the margins of society.

This delicate and never-perfect balance of limited resources between competing needs is at the heart of policy making.  Resource allocation is never simple, always contentious and more often than not a compromise between equally worthy needs.  But this means that in a socially responsive society, every hard-won government dollar comes with a burden of responsibility – to use it as effectively as possible to improve the lives of the the people who the government was elected to serve.

Which means that government-funded researchers should be probably be asking themselves (repeatedly): “How does my work benefit the society that is supporting it?”  Or, of they are brave, “Are people suffering because government dollars are supporting my research rather than going elsewhere?  And if so, what should I do about this?”

The answers may be as metaphysical as “my research provides insight into the nature of reality” to as broad as “the new knowledge I generate enriches the human experience” or as practical as “my work will help cure cancer.”  But the important thing surely is to ask the questions – and to act on the answers that come back.

I’m an ardent supporter of government-funded science, and I strongly believe (I use the word advisedly) that basic research is critical.  But it is not a right.  Every hard-earned dollar spent on research is a dollar less for someone else to do some good with.  Which means that we need to be prepared as scientists to ask the hard questions, and to grapple with uncomfortable answers.

If we do, the result will surely be science that plays a stronger, more integrated role within society – irrespective of absolute funding levels.