There is an expectation that academic research must have an impact to society. There is a lot of pressure in that direction that makes Richard Feynman, the famous physicist, say that it makes scientists be a little bit dishonest and exaggerate the impact that research has because people expect it to have an impact. I think that there is a role for basic research that promotes understanding without necessarily making a better microwave oven or more effective car or things like that. I’m personally interested in questions that I find intellectually appealing, and I don’t necessarily care about whether it will make somebody’s life better down the road. I know it sounds weird, but I think there is a role for that and I think that there should be more tolerance in this society for this intellectual curiosity, this wonderful intellectual curiosity that can drive basic research and improve our understanding of how the universe work, and for social scientists, how societies and economies work. Down the road, somebody can use basic advances in both social science and actual science to improve things. You can think of several major advancements in physics and biology that, down the road, somebody uses to make better medicine or more effective machines, and the same is true of economics as well.
What drives me, to summarize, is intellectual curiosity rather than the potential usefulness of what will come out of my research. Having said that, some of the questions that I’m working on right now, I think they have direct implications for policy. For example, one of the questions that I’m studying is whether there is underinvestment in renewable energy R&D, and whether subsidizing R&D in renewable energy can act, potentially as an engine of economic growth. So, I think that there is a direct effect, potentially. Another question that I am studying is what’s the optimum way of designing emissions trading systems, and that too has potential implications for limiting CO2 emissions in the atmosphere related to climate change.
Sometimes I feel sorry hearing an astrophysicist or an elementary particle physicist being interviewed on the radio, and the question is, “How is this going to make our lives better?” The poor scientist is desperately trying to find out a way to connect the purely theoretical and academic research to technological developments that could potentially come down the road, but clearly could not be pursued by the same scientist who is doing the basic research. People are usually rolling their eyes and saying, “People are really paying you to think for something that is not going to be even useful?” When it comes to getting grants, there is clearly a smaller amount of the role that is devoted to basic research than it is to applied or applicable potential research. That’s a little bit more serious, but in terms of academic freedom or encouragement to do abstract work, there has never been a problem.