What to support? Thoughts on funding for ideas. We must fund the forges of creativity as well as the engines of science (@JulianBurnside #ideasforaus)

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The barrister and #HumanRightsExtremist, Julian Burnside AO QC, was part of today’s Carnegie Conversations at the Opera House. While I’m not there, I was intrigued by a tweet he sent about other discussions going on today regarding the investment of our resources to do the maximum good. (I believe that this was the session following his, with Peter Singer and chaired by Ann Cherry.)

Mr Burnside’s Tweet was (for those who haven’t seen the image):

What to support? Effective Altruism is good, but what about funding the arts, ideas and other things which can’t be measured?

Some of the responses to this Tweet tried to directly measure the benefits of a cure for Malaria against funding the arts and, to me, this misses the point. I am a scientist, an artist, a husband, a cat steward, and many other things. As a scientist, I use the scientific method when I am undertaking my research into improving education for students and developing better solutions for use of technology. If you were to ask me which is better, putting funds into distributing a malarial cure or subsiding an opera, then we are so close to the endpoint of the activity that the net benefit can be measured. But if you were to ask me whether this means we could defund the arts to concentrate on biological science, I’d have to say no, because the creative development of solutions is not strictly linked to the methodical application of science.

As a computer scientist, I work in vast artificial universes where it is impossible to explore every option because we do not have enough universe. I depend upon insights and creativity to help me work out the solutions, which I can then test methodically. This is a known problem in all forms of large-scale optimisation – we have to settle for finding what we can, seeking the best, and we often have to step away to make sure that the peak we have ascended is not a foothill in the shadow of a greater mountain.

Measuring what goes into the production of a new idea is impossible. I can tell you that a number of my best solutions have come from weeks or months of thinking, combined with music, visits to art galleries, working with my hands, the pattern of water in the shower and the smell of fresh bread.

Once we have an idea then, yes, absolutely, let us fund centres and institutions that support and encourage the most rigorous and excellent mechanisms for turning ideas into reality. When we have a cure for malaria, we must fund it and distribute it, working on ways to reduce delays and cost mark-ups to those who need it most. But we work in spaces so big that walking the whole area is impossible. We depend upon leaps of intuition, creative exploration of solution spaces and, on occasion, flashes of madness to find the ideas that we can then develop

To think that we can focus only on the measurable outcomes is to totally miss the fact that we have no real idea where many of our best ideas come from and yet so many of us have stories of insight and clarity that stem from our interactions with a rich, developed culture of creativity. And that means funding the arts, the ideas and things that we cannot measure.

(Edited to make the hashtag at the top less likely to be misparsed.)

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