The Temptation of Spinoffs

Read an argument for a big scientific project, and you’ll inevitably hear mention of spinoffs. Whether it’s NASA bringing up velcro or CERN and the World-Wide Web, scientists love to bring up times when a project led to some unrelated technology that improved peoples’ lives.

Just as inevitably as they show up, though, these arguments face criticism. Advocates of the projects argue that promoting spinoffs misses the point, training the public to think about science in terms of unrelated near-term gadgets rather than the actual point of the experiments. They think promoters should focus on the scientific end-goals, justifying them either in terms of benefit to humanity or as a broader, “it makes the country worth defending” human goal. It’s a perspective that shows up in education too, where even when students ask “when will I ever use this in real life?” it’s not clear that’s really what they mean.

On the other side, opponents of the projects will point out that the spinoffs aren’t good enough to justify the science. Some, like velcro, weren’t actually spinoffs to begin with. Others seem like tiny benefits compared to the vast cost of the scientific projects, or like things that would have been much easier to get with funding that was actually dedicated to achieving the spinoff.

With all these downsides, why do people keep bringing spinoffs up? Are they just a cynical attempt to confuse people?

I think there’s something less cynical going on here. Things make a bit more sense when you listen to what the scientists say, not to the public, but when talking to scientists in other disciplines.

Scientists speaking to fellow scientists still mention spinoffs, but they mention scientific spinoffs. The speaker in a talk I saw recently pointed out that the LHC doesn’t just help with particle physics: by exploring the behavior of collisions of high-energy atomic nuclei it provides essential information for astrophysicists understanding neutron stars and cosmologists studying the early universe. When these experiments study situations we can’t model well, they improve the approximations we use to describe those situations in other contexts. By knowing more, we know more. Knowledge builds on knowledge, and the more we know about the world the more we can do, often in surprising and un-planned ways.

I think that when scientists promote spinoffs to the public, they’re trying to convey this same logic. Like promoting an improved understanding of stars to astrophysicists, they’re modeling the public as “consumer goods scientists” and trying to pick out applications they’d find interesting.

Knowing more does help us know more, that much is true. And eventually that knowledge can translate to improving people’s lives. But in a public debate, people aren’t looking for these kinds of principles, let alone a scientific “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine”. They’re looking for something like a cost-benefit analysis, “why are we doing this when we could do that?”

(This is not to say that most public debates involve especially good cost-benefit analysis. Just that it is, in the end, what people are trying to do.)

Simply listing spinoffs doesn’t really get at this. The spinoffs tend to be either small enough that they don’t really argue the point (velcro, even if NASA had invented it, could probably have been more cheaply found without a space program), or big but extremely unpredictable (it’s not like we’re going to invent another world-wide web).

Focusing on the actual end-products of the science should do a bit better. That can include “scientific spinoffs”, if not the “consumer goods spinoffs”. Those collisions of heavy nuclei change our understanding of how we model complex systems. That has applications in many areas of science, from how we model stars to materials to populations, and those applications in turn could radically improve people’s lives.

Or, well, they could not. Basic science is very hard to do cost-benefit analyses with. It’s the fabled explore/exploit dilemma, whether to keep trying to learn more or focus on building on what you have. If you don’t know what’s out there, if you don’t know what you don’t know, then you can’t really solve that dilemma.

So I get the temptation of reaching to spinoffs, of pointing to something concrete in everyday life and saying “science did that!” Science does radically improve people’s lives, but it doesn’t always do it especially quickly. You want to teach people that knowledge leads to knowledge, and you try to communicate it the way you would to other scientists, by saying how your knowledge and theirs intersect. But if you want to justify science to the public, you want something with at least the flavor of cost-benefit analysis. And you’ll get more mileage out of that if you think about where the science itself can go, than if you focus on the consumer goods it accidentally spins off along the way.

3 thoughts on “The Temptation of Spinoffs

  1. Richard Amacher

    One could argue that some of the biggest spinoffs of the Apollo Program were caused by/achieved by the closure of the program that sent some of the brightest minds in mathematics, physics, electronics, materials, computing and so forth scurrying off to make their fortunes, or just a living in some completely different endeavor they could benefit.


  2. ohwilleke

    Scientific spinoffs are one of the main current justifications for ongoing work in String Theory, which has provided lots of new methodologies and preliminary theoretical conclusions of much smaller issues, even if its ultimate promise of serving as a TOE has gone unfulfilled so far.


  3. Jerome

    It’s so strange how vocal deficit hawks among the people and in the government demand that science reap economic benefits through spinoffs. Because they, like every single person in the world, knows that the reason we do science is because of the adventurous human spirit; we do it because we can and must. Nobody actually thinks it’s for economic reasons, we all know what’s up, we’re all in on the secret, yet we play this game.

    We scientists know it, the politicians know it, the public knows it. But then when we’re out in public, there’s this strange societal convention where we all feel like we must pretend that we do it for economic benefits, like we’re big tough business-folk always thinking about net utility and growth. We put on this economy-driven persona. It’s like some sort of act we have to play a part in, because we’re too scared to just admit that space is cool, or the ocean is neat, etc. Nobody believes in the lie, deep down, so why do it? I know the politicians want to line their own pockets, but they can find out if a new technology helps that goal without us shelling out fake and unconvincing economic arguments that never fooled them to begin with.

    If someone wants to believe my work will make the world better, that’s great, but I’m not going to spend one moment trying to convince the public that the Apollo program was worth it for non-stick frying pans. It was worth it because it was awesome.



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