I'm currently reading "The Science of Discworld" by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. It's a really fun and surprisingly thought-provoking book, using Discworld as a model to discuss important issues in science in our world ("Roundworld"). I might write a longer post on it later when I finish it, but one quote in particular (about Unseen University on Discworld) struck a chord:
"A university is very much like a coral reef. It provides calm waters and food particles for delicate yet marvellously constructed organisms that could not possibly survive in the pounding surf of reality, where people ask questions like, â€˜Is what you do of any use?' and other nonsense." p. 142-143
This has a wicked ring of truth about it, but is also a tribute to a rapidly vanishing world. It certainly used to be the case that academics could potter around studying something unbelievably obscure and arcane for 30 years, without much interference from anything resembling the outside world. But now we pretty much have to try to survive in the surf. This isn't, in itself, a bad thing: after all, our work is funded by tax payers and charities, so some justification should be made for what we do. The problem comes in deciding whether what we do is "of any use". People (by which I mean the people who pay the taxes) want research that will benefit humans. But even the most applied research must be founded on "blue skies" foundations - you have to start somewhere. And who knows what useful findings might pop up unexpectedly in any study? Chance can play a big part in important discoveries, such as Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin. Not to mention the fact that knowledge is important for it's own sake — building a more accurate model of the world matters — at least to me. And I pay taxes too.