So what do professors do? I’m pretty well informed; besides having first hand experience as a grad student, I also keep an eye on a lot of academic blogs. So sometimes it’s interesting to read the general public’s reaction to what a professor actually does. Check out this op-ed, from the NY Times: Sorry that it’s sort of an old article by now.
I don’t have a problem with loosening some control on scientists and letting them follow research where they will. We already have a fairly decent mechanism for discouraging utterly useless research; it’s called “publish or perish”. You need to have something that’s of interest at least to other scientists in order to merit inclusion in a higher-ranked journal, and publishing in higher ranked journals is the main way to get a professorship and tenure. I’m generalizing wildly here, of course.
If we tailor our science to examine what we think is important only right now, we’re missing out on the chance to do off-the-wall, seemingly useless stuff that may have other applications we can’t even conceive of right now. Wringing incremental advances out of stuff we already know is what businesses do all the time to stay current. They do it well, so let them fund that stuff. But someone needs to encourage the basic research that doesn’t have an immediate payoff.