Government Funding of Basic Science? Knock It Off.

 

The-MartianFor decades now, even free-market economists have argued that the government should fund basic scientific research. I myself have always felt suspicious of the argument — this is one reason I remain skeptical of NASA, despite the ridicule of my comrades Rob Long and James Lileks, who can barely contain their pleasure at the thought of spending untold sums to send someone to Mars — but I confess that I’ve never possessed the analytical skills to investigate the argument, let alone refute it.

Along comes Matt Ridley in this weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, where he has published a brilliant essay called “The Myth of Basic Science.” Excerpts:

[I]t has been an article of faith that science would not get funded if government did not do it, and economic growth would not happen if science did not get funded by the taxpayer….[Yet as Terence Kealey, a biochemist who became an economist argues] there is still no empirical demonstration of the need for public funding of research and that the historical record suggests the opposite.

After all, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. and Britain made huge contributions to science with negligible public funding, while Germany and France, with hefty public funding, achieved no greater results either in science or in economics. After World War II, the U.S. and Britain began to fund science heavily from the public purse. With the success of war science and of Soviet state funding that led to Sputnik, it seemed obvious that state funding must make a difference.

The true lesson—that Sputnik relied heavily on Robert Goddard’s work, which had been funded by the Guggenheims—could have gone the other way. Yet there was no growth dividend for Britain and America from this science-funding rush. Their economies grew no faster than they had before.

In other words, the government should spend a lot less even than many on our side had supposed.

As for Brothers Long and Lileks, why should NASA spend tens of billions to send a man to Mars when 21st Century Fox has already put Matt Damon on the planet for just $100 million?

There are 88 comments.

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  1. John Walker Contributor

    NASA doesn’t do basic research. It’s a jobs program for the representatives and senators who fund its expenditures in their districts and states. We can argue about public funding for basic research (I’m against it), but only a small fraction of NASA’s budget falls into that category.

    • #1
    • October 25, 2015, at 5:57 PM PDT
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  2. Peter Robinson Founder
    Peter Robinson Post author

    Okay, out of the abundance of my ignorance I mischaracterized NASA. But if John Walker joins Matt Ridley in opposing government funding of basic research, then, ladies and gentlemen, I very contentedly rest my case.

    • #2
    • October 25, 2015, at 6:01 PM PDT
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  3. EJHill Podcaster

    The government has had its hand in funding technological advances. What is absent is definitive proof that human ingenuity and the market would not have produced it on its own.

    As for the other expenditure, there’s nothing wrong in spending $100M to send Matt Damon to Mars. It’s the expense of bringing him back that I object to.

    • #3
    • October 25, 2015, at 6:09 PM PDT
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  4. James Gawron Thatcher

    Peter,

    I’m sorry but I totally disagree with Mr. Ridley. It is just typical hubris that refuses to give the deep culture the credit it deserves. Like people failing to grasp the importance of the Constitution and the ideas of limited government when assessing the success of America.

    Let’s take his first example Thomas Edison. In 1795 Charles de Coulomb gave us Coulomb’s Law. In 1810 Georg Ohm gave us Ohm’s Law. In 1831 Michael Faraday gave us Faraday’s Law. In 1861 James Clerk Maxwell gave us Maxwell’s equations. In 1867 Carl Friedrich Gauss published Gauss’s Law.

    I challenge Ridley or anyone else to imagine that Edison or any other inventor would have been able to do the series of late 19th century electricity related inventions without the foundational science prepared for them by the noted scientists.

    Shallow thinking is never good thinking.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #4
    • October 25, 2015, at 6:17 PM PDT
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  5. SpiritO'78 Member

    When the conversations turn toward NASA and funding my eyes usually glaze over. Not that I don’t care, I just honestly don’t know anything about that the programs or how they are funded. Good stuff guys and thanks.

    • #5
    • October 25, 2015, at 6:36 PM PDT
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  6. JimGoneWild Coolidge

    Politicians funding science is one thing. It’s science funding politicians that I object too.

    [smart phone entry edited to correct spelling]

    • #6
    • October 25, 2015, at 6:41 PM PDT
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  7. Sir Walter Valdez Inactive

    The real lesson is how powerful even a partial free market like ours is to finance 100,000s of useless gov workers with better pay/benes than private sector, bogus research, keep millions of able adults safely away from an entry level job, under-educate our kids at highest prices on the planet, etc. etc. & yet still produce innovations. Maybe we are at the inflection point in the curve & the wheels are coming off, but it worked from Ike thru Dubya. Soviets couldn’t provide enough consumer goods like windshield wiper blades & toilet papers in sufficient quantity which is what did them in. Take away our military spending, which results in real hardware & trained adults – would you say 20% of the gov expenditures result in innovations which would never be done by private sector? 15%? I think it’s lower. The Clintons & Obama know this. It’s why they want free trade & the option of private school for their kids.

    • #7
    • October 25, 2015, at 6:45 PM PDT
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  8. Paddy S Member

    Peter,

    If I recall your last interview with David Berlinski (who I’m still waiting on to finish his work so I can read his new book) told you the same. I would be interested in adding that aside from government’s funding of science, it would be much better to see private enterprise step into the market. I would also agree with you that the 19th century saw greatest leap in scientific achievements. Although the beginnings of science and experiments carried out by Catholic priests and monks in the Renaissance and pre Renaissance era has to be recognised aswell to be truthful.

    • #8
    • October 25, 2015, at 6:51 PM PDT
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  9. James Gawron Thatcher

    JimGoneWild:Government funding science is one thing. It’s science funding politics that I object too.

    JGW,

    Well, this we can agree upon. I don’t think the role of Science in our progress forward is what should be challenged. Rather a statist university system filled with perverse incentives is at the root of so many ills. So much that goes on is related to the search for grant money rather than research. Failing to recognize the fragile nature of peer review and how easily it might be corrupted is part of our stupid culture of gross stupidity.

    Our media culture wastes endless time on childlike hero worship and rarely has anything of value to say. We don’t even grasp the importance of pure Mathematics in contribution to Science. Imagine that Descartes didn’t add the third dimension and the real number line to geometry. How likely would it be that Newton would create the Calculus and Mechanics. Similarly, Einstein has a debt to be paid to Riemann for the extra dimensions. If you can appreciate that pure mathematics is important you might even be convinced reading a poem would be of value or listening to Classical Music.

    Easy quick answers yield shallow people who want instant results. It takes time to create what is of lasting value. Whether it is an idea, a product, or a relationship.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #9
    • October 25, 2015, at 7:01 PM PDT
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  10. Larry Koler Inactive

    Peter Robinson:Okay, out of the abundance of my ignorance I mischaracterized NASA. But if John Walker joins Matt Ridley in opposing government funding of basic research, then, ladies and gentlemen, I very contentedly rest my case.

    Me, too.

    Thanks, John, for weighing in early.

    • #10
    • October 25, 2015, at 7:06 PM PDT
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  11. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge

    I’m pretty conflicted on this issue. As a rule, I’m suspicious of government funding of anything, and as much as I love “basic science,” one has to admit that a lot of it has no conceivable practical application.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to cite the example of the way things were done before the mid-20th century. There was a time when amateur scientists could make important discoveries with inexpensive equipment, but that’s increasingly unlikely as the frontiers of science advance. This is the era of the Large Hadron Collider and the Hubble Space Telescope, after all. It’s unlikely that either would exist without public funding.

    On the other hand, if I’m coldly analytical about it, I’d have a hard time justifying the expense of either one. I get a lot of enjoyment from both, but the government shouldn’t be funding my entertainment.

    • #11
    • October 25, 2015, at 7:16 PM PDT
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  12. raycon and lindacon Inactive

    James Gawron:Peter,

    I’m sorry but I totally disagree with Mr. Ridley. It is just typical hubris that refuses to give the deep culture the credit it deserves. Like people failing to grasp the importance of the Constitution and the ideas of limited government when assessing the success of America.

    Let’s take his first example Thomas Edison. In 1795 Charles de Coulomb gave us Coulomb’s Law. In 1810 Georg Ohm gave us Ohm’s Law. In 1831 Michael Faraday gave us Faraday’s Law. In 1861 James Clerk Maxwell gave us Maxwell’s equations. In 1867 Carl Friedrich Gauss published Gauss’s Law.

    I challenge Ridley or anyone else to imagine that Edison or any other inventor would have been able to do the series of late 19th century electricity related inventions without the foundational science prepared for them by the noted scientists.

    Shallow thinking is never good thinking.

    Regards,

    Jim

    None of the above basic science was funded by the public purse. No government was funding the work of the scientists who laid the path for Edison.

    • #12
    • October 25, 2015, at 7:22 PM PDT
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  13. Valiuth Member

    I think the thing that bothers me in people arguing about funding science research or not is proportionally it makes up something like 1% of the governments budget. Of all the things that need to be looked at budget wise this surely isn’t the most productive. It is just usually the most politically convenient. You can always get a congressman to be angry that some guy got 1 million dollars to look at flies.

    Here is my question to you Peter and all other science funding skeptics. Do you think it is worth encouraging Americans to take up scientific training? A lot of the grant money goes to paying for tuition and stipends for graduate students. In fact most of the money from grants goes to paying salaries and benefits, rather than on chemicals and actual experiments. Essentially our science funding is a scientific jobs program meant to encourage an ample supply of people with these skills. The side benefit is having basic research done.

    Now I think there is a lot of waste in doing this through Universities who basically use science grants as a means of floating their humanities departments. Basically if you prevented universities from taking a cut of the money to fund other things you could half the research budget and still get the same out put.

    Also on the topic of NASA would Space X and other private space travel firms even exist without the prior work of NASA?

    • #13
    • October 25, 2015, at 7:23 PM PDT
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  14. Valiuth Member

    It seems to me like we can always point to work done by private companies and say well this also works. But, what that kind of argument can’t address is if the research priorities would be the same? It is a two edged sword I admit, but if you like the world you are living in now government funded research has a lot to do with it. Saying it would have happened any way is like saying the USSR would have fallen anyway without Ronald Reagan. Perhaps, but there is no proof for it.

    I think what we should consider doing is offering tax incentives to more firms willing to engage in open research and sharing. Which is one of the issues with corporate work is that if and until they can get a patent no one wants to publish anything, and at least one of the good things public research does is its commitment to publishing results. Though I would argue the dynamics of current publishing are actually hampering this because of the unwillingness of people to publish incomplete or negative results. So much can be done to improve public research.

    • #14
    • October 25, 2015, at 7:30 PM PDT
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  15. James Madison Member

    I work in a university which is a major research campus. The truth is that government R&D is a often a payoff for universities and private sector companies and can be heavily influenced by legislators and the executive branch. Some of it yields useful discovery that leads to applied research while much of it is a lagging explanation, copy cat, or dead end. The mapping of the human genome at a much higher cost using technology taken from Venter’s firm is an example. Solar energy development and battery development are other examples. I worked with the LED lighting evolution and the real break throughs came about in private labs with some narrowing of ideas by prior science and some good old trial and error.

    The ROI on government ingeneral is less than 1%. The R&D sponsored by government is likely much less.

    • #15
    • October 25, 2015, at 7:31 PM PDT
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  16. Valiuth Member

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.:

    I get a lot of enjoyment from both, but the government shouldn’t be funding my entertainment.

    I agree which is why we shouldn’t fun NPR or PBS, but science isn’t entertainment. It is like saying the government shouldn’t fun museums, or monuments. I think there is a role for government is preserving and promoting our culture, and in advancing it as well. Ultimately science and knowledge are public goods, a public good will need some level of public support and regulation.

    • #16
    • October 25, 2015, at 7:35 PM PDT
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  17. Aaron Miller Member

    Of course, scientific research can be funded privately (voluntarily).

    How many generations of artists have been funded privately over the centuries? Since the advent of popular literature, TV, and various other technologies (especially those regarding communication and transportation) in modern times, incalculably more people are educated enough to take an interest in the sciences. And incalculably more people now have wealth to invest and donate.

    Heck, I regularly read about Kickstarter proposals these days that raise tens of thousands of dollars in a single day! Budgets measured in millions have been raised by crowdsourcing.

    Scientific research is somehow the one arena of human endeavor that people won’t contribute to without being forced by government? Nonsense.

    If you can’t raise the money for your research, it’s probably because your research would be a waste of money anyway. Entire industries have arisen around pseudo-science on the American taxpayer’s dime. Not every worthwhile project is of popular interest, but corporations specialize in boring goals.

    Some admirable projects wouldn’t gain sufficient funds. Some asinine projects would capture popular appeal and truckloads of cash. How is that any worse than the slush funds of political bureaucrats who favor their own interests and heap untold millions onto pseudo-scientific hippies through American academia?

    • #17
    • October 25, 2015, at 7:40 PM PDT
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  18. James Gawron Thatcher

    raycon and lindacon:

    James Gawron:Peter,

    I’m sorry but I totally disagree with Mr. Ridley. It is just typical hubris that refuses to give the deep culture the credit it deserves. Like people failing to grasp the importance of the Constitution and the ideas of limited government when assessing the success of America.

    Let’s take his first example Thomas Edison. In 1795 Charles de Coulomb gave us Coulomb’s Law. In 1810 Georg Ohm gave us Ohm’s Law. In 1831 Michael Faraday gave us Faraday’s Law. In 1861 James Clerk Maxwell gave us Maxwell’s equations. In 1867 Carl Friedrich Gauss published Gauss’s Law.

    I challenge Ridley or anyone else to imagine that Edison or any other inventor would have been able to do the series of late 19th century electricity related inventions without the foundational science prepared for them by the noted scientists.

    Shallow thinking is never good thinking.

    Regards,

    Jim

    None of the above basic science was funded by the public purse. No government was funding the work of the scientists who laid the path for Edison.

    Raycon & Lindacon,

    If we are only talking funding then I am inclined to be very skeptical of the current highly perverted government funding regime. However, Ridley was making a much broader argument.

    Innovation is a mysteriously difficult thing to dictate. Technology seems to change by a sort of inexorable, evolutionary progress, which we probably cannot stop—or speed up much either. And it’s not much the product of science. Most technological breakthroughs come from technologists tinkering, not from researchers chasing hypotheses. Heretical as it may sound, “basic science” isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think.

    I am afraid Matt is full of it on this. This is shallow nonsense. Your point that the History of Science of Electrical Theory that I was laying out had nothing to do with government funding is a very good point and one that should be held over the heads of those that aren’t ready for prime time or peer review.

    It is the shallowness of the culture that actually helps the government funding argument. It denies the importance of individual genius, integrity, and hardwork. Rather it emphasizes some vague collective trend that needs to be subsidized.

    Matt didn’t do so well here. I think Ricochet is more on the ball.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #18
    • October 25, 2015, at 7:45 PM PDT
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  19. namlliT noD Member

    Aaron Miller:Of course, scientific research can be funded privately (voluntarily).

    Heck, I regularly read about Kickstarter proposals these days that raise tens of thousands of dollars in a single day!

    Aaron, that’s it! A new startup business…

    QuarkStarter: Crowdfunding for basic scientific research.

    Checking… yes, quarkstarter.com is available.

    • #19
    • October 25, 2015, at 8:09 PM PDT
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  20. EJHill Podcaster

    Universities aren’t interested in commercial development. That takes time. Plus you have to be vigilant with the patents. But what they’re really interested in is funding. Immediate rewards!

    • #20
    • October 25, 2015, at 8:09 PM PDT
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  21. Mendel Member

    Every single major development in the pharmaceutical field over the last two decades would not have been possible without government-funded basic research.

    We may or may not have reached a point where cutting off (or severely drawing down) government funding for biomedical science would not throttle the private sector research pipeline. And we can’t replay the counterfactual of what drugs would have been developed without so much basic research.

    But the truth remains the same: the modern pharmaceutical sector would not exist without reams of prior public sector research.

    • #21
    • October 25, 2015, at 8:30 PM PDT
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  22. MarciN Member

    The MIT Media Lab is a mostly privately funded program that has achieved breathtaking results. Frank Moss, formerly the head of the Media Lab, has written an inspiring book–The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices–about his tenure as its executive director.

    The Media Lab inventions and discoveries have also led to countless successful startups.

    That said, the problem for much of science today is, as many people have pointed out here, the cost of the equipment. I don’t mind public-private partnerships that lead to such inventions as Alvin. (Personally, I think seafloor exploration is as important as outer space.)

    • #22
    • October 25, 2015, at 8:33 PM PDT
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  23. Z in MT Inactive

    Peter! You want to put me out of job!

    More seriously. I am here working on a Sunday night preparing a proposal for – dear god! – the National Science Foundation. This proposal is a weird mix of basic and applied science.

    For his PhD in Physics my Post-Doc studied the levitation and trapping of tiny (micron sized) little glass spheres in vacuum using a focused laser. Because the glass spheres are held in space only using a laser they are very sensitive and can be used to measure attonewton (~10^-18 lbs) forces. His PhD advisor wants to measure short range forces like corrections to gravity (very basic). My and his interest is to use them to make very sensitive measurements of accelerations for inertial navigation or to measure variations in the local gravitational field, which can tell you if there is a very large pool of oil beneath you (applied).

    However one of the problems with laser trapping of particles is that they get very hot (1000 C !) and can escape the trap. Our idea is to dope the glass particles with Rare-Earth ions and use a technique called solid state laser cooling to keep the particles at or below room temperature.

    If the idea works it will help some do even more basic science, but it may also lead to real devices with real world applications.

    Should I be funded?

    • #23
    • October 25, 2015, at 8:51 PM PDT
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  24. Could Be Anyone Member

    The whole science funding by government argument is the same as that of the government incentive for the market argument (as a matter of fact the former can be categorized in the latter). Humans have been producing, trading, and consuming goods and improving the quality of said goods and creating new goods since forever. So long as man exists, he will desire for himself (and hopefully his family) a better life and act in varying ways towards that goal.

    I fail to see any imperative for the state to fund “scientific research” aside from the military (since that is a legitimate claim of the state); Adam Smith summarized this fact of life with his concept of division of labor. In a state of non violence (you can allocate energy to other objectives if you do not have to worry about your head being cut off) and trade men will work to better themselves, one such way being the creation and improvement of technology.

    Wilbur and Orville Wright, two bicycle mechanics managed to invent the airplane with an incredibly small budget (in their free time no less). Meanwhile the federal government was subsidizing, with a rather large and fat budget, the launching of metal into the Potomac River in order to “invent” the airplane.

    Point being that most inductive reasoning (scientific research) that improves our lives is done at an individual level without the need for state incentives.

    • #24
    • October 25, 2015, at 8:54 PM PDT
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  25. wilber forge Member

    Is it not in which on matters how money is spent when it comes to this ? Beyond the moon landings, the mythology today sells well and that is what drives man. Funding of R&D can be usefull, yet why spend large sums on why Obese Lesbian Women have poor sex lives or shrimp running on treadmills ? Government creates Jobs ! Hmmm –

    Perhaps it a Hampster and Wheel thing –

    • #25
    • October 25, 2015, at 8:58 PM PDT
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  26. Bigfoot Thatcher

    raycon and lindacon: None of the above basic science was funded by the public purse. No government was funding the work of the scientists who laid the path for Edison.

    Actually all of the basic science mentioned was supported by the “public” purse – either directly or indirectly.

    Coulomb was a military officer involved in numerous engineering as well as research projects. His research was primarily funded by his employment.

    Ohm was a teacher at various schools and a professor at several Universities.

    Faraday, Maxwell, and Gauss were employed by Universities and by the time of their affiliation were funded by the respective governments.

    • #26
    • October 25, 2015, at 9:04 PM PDT
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  27. Jimmy Carter Member

    If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every State, county and parish and pay them out of their public treasury;
    they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may assume the provision of the poor; they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, every thing, from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police, would be thrown under the power of Congress…. Were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for [a bill subsidizing certain fishermen], it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited Government established by the people of America.

    James Madison

    • #27
    • October 25, 2015, at 9:11 PM PDT
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  28. Z in MT Inactive

    Some more notes:

    Government funded research and development is inefficient, and universities are actually quite efficient with government research money when compared to the private sector or government labs. I work mostly in DoD funded research and I collaborate often with small research focused small business and large defense contractors.

    The F&A overhead rate at most universities is about 44%. This means that as a Principle Investigator when I prepare my budget, after I have budgeted for all the labor, labor overhead (SS, FICA, etc. health insurance, retirement all adding up to ~37% of for professional scientists (this is cheap even compared to the private sector)), student stipends and tuition, materials and supplies, and equipment I multiply the total by 44% and add that to the cost of the contract.

    This 44% goes to pay to (literally at my campus) to build laboratory buildings or lease laboratory space, keep the power on, provide internet, accounting, HR, administration, etc. Some of that 44% does end up subsidizing humanities.

    In the private sector this overhead (F&A) can be higher than 100%. In the government labs (NIST, NOAA, DoE Labs, AFRL, ARL, NRL) it can be as high as 150%.

    The most inefficient part of government research is the people in government who provide the research funding. In the DoD the general rule of thumb is that the DoD spends $1 in administration just in the governmen for every $1 they give out in research funds.

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    • October 25, 2015, at 9:17 PM PDT
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  29. Arahant Member

    Peter,

    You’re missing the point. One man to Mars is only the start. It’s when we can send every Progressive to Mars that this science pays off.

    • #29
    • October 25, 2015, at 9:18 PM PDT
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  30. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Thatcher

    John Walker:NASA doesn’t do basic research. It’s a jobs program for the representatives and senators who fund its expenditures in their districts and states. We can argue about public funding for basic research (I’m against it), but only a small fraction of NASA’s budget falls into that category.

    John

    I am really curious. Do you think that the market would mount the research missions NASA has done to the various planets, with orbiters, landers, and rovers purely on a for profit motive? (and for the moment let’s set aside the manned missions, I let Rand S. bang on that drum). I have a lot of little bits of my intellectual effort orbiting the earth, the moon, passing Pluto and sampling the Martian soil.

    In my estimation these “adventures” are akin to Isabella and Ferdinand banking Columbus’s jaunt to the New World. The common Spaniards in the 1500’s did not collectively vote for those trips, and I am sure many of their more intellectual wags would say “If we could deliver men to the new world, we could feed and clothe all our peons”. Clearly the Crown wanted something of tangible value for the trips (short cut on trade routes, exploration, gold…), but in concrete terms it was a shaky financial proposition for a ROI for those fronting the money. I hope you would agree that discovering the new world and development there of were of beneficial to all of humanity.

    So how do you get the “exploration” that at this point is purely an intellectual exercise, but if history is our guide will eventually be exploited for profit and the betterment of all?

    A small voice in my head is hoping you won’t tell me that a life time of making some really cool stuff has had no real societal value because it was done thru the collective Fisk much like those common Spaniards .

    • #30
    • October 25, 2015, at 9:27 PM PDT
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