Re: Industrial policy versus science funding
Very good points. We see a similar trend in the Netherlands: science funding of big projects, preferably with industry. This can and does produce some good science, and the odd bit of new product development. However, there is less and less funding for fundamental science, and in particular the smaller "what if?" projects for just one PhD student who can work on some weird idea of their own or their supervisor. In such projects you often end up solving totally different problems than we set out to do along the way. They rarely fail in their entirety, for even if the original goal isn't reached, the serendipitous discoveries along the way, and the insights gained on why something didn't work are still valuable in their own right. Not necessarily valuable in terms of money (what price do we put on the Schroedinger equation?), but valuable for other scientists to build new ideas on, and not least in having trained another intelligent person with an inquiring mind. Money spent of research projects is very much money spent on education, after all. Besides, many scientific breakthroughs only bear fruit much later, and often in unexpected areas. If we hadn't gone into the weird world of quantum mechanics, we would probably not have developed the transistor, which would be a pity, as I am quite a fan of the transistor.
This is not to say collaborations with industry should not be encouraged. I get a lot of ideas from problems facing such industrial partners as I have, and in computer science in particular, the distance between theoretical concept and practical application is small. I might develop the theory of some new image processing tool in the morning, develop an algorithm in the afternoon, and have a working prototype the next day. In e.g. material science, this is unthinkable.
Science is an evolutionary process, with ideas mutating and recombining in new ways, and being submitted to selection by experimental validation (or more properly, ideas survive as long as we cannot falsify them), and by allocation of funding. In any evolutionary process, we can easily get premature convergence on suboptimal solutions by applying too much selection pressure. By funding a few, big projects in narrow fields, we run precisely that risk.