With the latest media fad controversy about Obama’s reversal of Bush’s ban on using federal money for Stem Cell Research I’ve noticed an interesting change in tone. The arguments are no longer about the whether it is more ethical to use these embryos (that are made up of roughly 150 cells) for research that could lead to the great advancements in the medical field and save many lives, or if they should be thrown out in the trash where the maggots can feast on them. The new argument is aimed at the entire role of science in government and society.
The big question is why should the Government pay for Scientific Research?
The simple answer is it pays. Every time the Government puts money into research that money comes back many times over.
During the Great Depression and World War II the federal government poured vast sums of money into Nuclear Physics, Aeronautics, Electronics, and Chemistry research. From this whole new industries spawned, Nuclear Medicine, the Airline Industry, Radar, Televisions, Computers, and Plastic. The change that this investment in science spawned gave Americans a lifestyle that was envied around the world.
The Soviet Union looked at how the US and the Nazis used government funded research and took that idea to go from a feudal state to a Superpower.
Where the United States got the surprise advantage over the Nazis and Soviets was using the idea of Big Science, not only for Military applications but for consumer goods as well.
Developing the science and engineering for the Jet Engine had huge military advantages of course, but giving that technology to commercial airlines opened up the entire country to air travel while the Soviets were still building their rail system.
The idea of building an indestructible communication system was a Big Science idea for the Cold War, then some guys thought up the idea piggybacking communication between computers on it and the DARPAnet became the Internet.
Faster computers were needed for the military and NASA so they invested in silicon chip research and Steve Wozniak figured out that the new chips were powerful and cheap enough to build a computer the average person could afford, and the personal computer industry was born.
In the 70s Japan took this idea of Big Science and skipped the military and put it straight into consumer goods. Knowing they couldn’t grow a company that could compete with Bell Labs and IBM they built a government run electronics research lab and turned the science over to the likes of Sony, Nintendo, and other Japanese companies as well as American companies that agreed to employ Japanese workers like Saga and Samsung (The agreement worked out so well those two companies moved to Japan).
The Japanese took their idea to all industries including the car industry. Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi couldn’t compete with America’s big three even with a trimmer management structure and (at the time) lower wages, so the Japanese Government invested in automotive science, engineering and manufacturing techniques so that Japanese car companies could have better engineered cars at a lower cost in factories that could retool in three years instead of five, making them more responsive to customer needs.
All of this brings me back to the original question of this article, if scientific research is so profitable, why should the Government pay for it?
For some of it the projects are simply too large for individual companies to do it alone, like the beginnings of the Internet. It was started in 1957 and wasn’t commercialized until the late 1980s that’s a thirty-year lead time, most managers are reluctant to take on a project early in their career that won’t pay of until after they retire.
NASA has an even larger lead time, manned space exploration started in the early sixties and private space trips are just now starting, a large profitable manned space industry is still decades away.
Some projects the scientific process works against individual profit margins. The pharmaceutical industry for example: Research into groups of drugs (like heart medicine) needs vigorous scientific debate so it is done openly by the National Institute of Health. Those findings (after 20 to 40 years of research and debate) are turned over to the Pharmaceutical Companies who spend 8 to 10 years researching the individual drugs. There is no profit for an individual company to do the groundwork, but the whole industry rises from the government research.
Finally some scientific projects benefit thousands or even millions of people but there is no way to make a profit from them.
In Bobby Jindal’s response to President Obama he railed against federal money being spent on Volcano Monitoring. The federal government monitors active Volcanoes in order predict when they will erupt. Before they erupt warnings are given out so that people can evacuate the area.
This has saved thousands of people and countless billions of dollars but there is no way that any individual could make a profit from it.
Federal money spent on scientific research is a good investment. So when Bobby Jindal makes fun of Volcano Monitoring, the people whose lives are saved aren’t laughing. When John McCain jokes about Grisly Bear DNA testing, research to determine the exact numbers of endangered Grisly Bear vs Common Bears, the ranchers who will have their land opened up because of this research aren’t laughing.
And finally when Eric Cantor says, "Why are we going and distracting ourselves from the economy? This is job No. 1. Let's focus on what needs to be done." The thousands of people with spinal injuries who will able to be productive members of society again, as well as all the specialists who will make a boatload of money from the research won’t see it as a distraction.
Many Thanks to ChristinaTM for asking that question; She is obviously not alone in not understanding why the anti-science policies of the last 30 years have destroyed the engine of our economy.