There is a lot of pressure for academic researchers to think more about what kind of economic impact their work might have. If this is just a suggestion that we should at least consider this, then it is probably fine. There is, however, a chance – a pretty good one in my view – that this pressure will ultimately force researchers to start doing more applied research that would be perceived as being more economically viable.
Presumably the reason this is happening is that there is a belief amongst those who make these kind of decisions that in an economic downturn it is more important to do research that may have economic value today than it is to do fundamental research that may have no economic value today and if it does ultimately have some impact, it will only be in the distant future. This may sound reasonable, but there could well be a strong argument that this is precisely the wrong thing to do.
It would seem – to me a to least – that most wealth in an economy simply circulates. It is pretty difficult to generate new wealth. If this is true then it doesn’t really matter if the money spent on research goes to fundamental research or to applied research. It still employs people and things will still need to be built. What is worse, if we start encouraging applied research over fundamental research we will not only lose something that is of great interest to us as a society, we will be using taxpayers money to do something that private industry should be paying for itself. It is certainly my view that we should continue using taxpayers money to do what industry cannot be expected to do and we should be encouraging industry to become less risk averse rather than the reverse.