Basic research in the sciences has been crucial to United States leadership in both technology and science. It typically offers little if any immediate economic or social benefit, so private industry has not historically been the major source of funding for most basic research. Such research typically occurs in university contexts, or sometimes industrial contexts largely supported by government funding, especially if the research has any potential for military applications.
Although those familiar with me know that Fox News is not a source I trust for objective news, I have chosen it as the source for this next specific piece of information simply to forestall its outright, knee-jerk dismissal by archconservatives that citing a liberal source has previously and reliably provoked. In an article addressing one factor in the erosion of scientific know-how in the U.S., Fox News cites a scary statistic regarding the potential degradation of our scientific and technological leadership in the world. Fully one out of five scientists is seriously considering leaving the country to avoid the premature demise of their careers for lack of funding. It is a sad scenario. We fund their education, then we watch them go down the proverbial drain as far as U.S. scientific and technological leadership is concerned. Despite the recent budget compromise, which has only offered token relief on this issue, this problem persists.
For those who have trouble understanding the fundamental economic value of leadership in basic research, there are many very telling examples in our relatively recent past. Although the following example does not lead to any obvious economic or social benefit on its face, neither did going to the moon. Nevertheless, the positive economic fallout of the latter has been enormous, an explanation of which follows. The economic principles involved without even claiming an economic or social benefit are clearly illustrated in the example below.
In a video interview posted by William Wei in Business Insider dated Aug. 29, 2013 and misleadingly titled "Neil deGrasse Tyson Does not Think Elon Musk's SpaceX Will Put People On Mars", Tyson explains that he does not see SpaceX or any other privately operated enterprise as pioneers in taking astronauts to Mars. This is quite a different statement from that in the headline. Pioneering an adventurous trip and never making the trip are not quite the same thing, to put it mildly. However, in a separate article published about this interview, one comment complained that Tyson should not be polarizing the issue, since the comment's author feels that both the public and private sector need to work together. That, in fact, is exactly what is already happening.
But it is untrue that Tyson polarized the issue. This distortion of Tyson's interview is important because it gets to the essence of a lot of political arguments relating to the funding of basic research in the United States. Tyson has just made an intelligent assessment of the reward/risk and cost/benefit ratios. He projects from this that we cannot reasonably expect that a private enterprise like SpaceX will be sufficiently capitalized. He did not say private enterprise cannot go to Mars. He merely stated that it would not be the first to do it. That admittedly ignores that a private enterprise like SpaceX might end up doing it as a private contractor to NASA just as it is already doing on freight deliveries to the International Space Station (ISS).
Tyson cites a very old example, the journey of Columbus. That is a very good analogy, since Tyson points out that it was not the enormously wealthy Dutch East India Trading Company that led to the huge economic boom Europe's connection to the Americas later provided, but a government sponsored exploratory trip that opened up the gargantuan economic expansion that ensued. The modern and much more precise analogy is that Musk would not be doing what he is doing if NASA had not done it first. Now Musk with his private enterprise is doing it more cheaply and effectively. Tyson was not polarizing the issue at all. He was just showing how each has its appropriate role in achieving the overall goal.
Another example is modern, ultra-compact information technology. NASA financed the basic research for it simply because of the compact, light electronics demanded by the economics of rocket propulsion. It costs anywhere from 25 to 50 pounds of rocket fuel to put a single pound of payload even into low earth orbit, not to mention going to the moon. The government financed it out of fear the Soviets would beat us. That would have never happened if we had waited for private industry. We owe our laptops, cell phones, and iPhones, not to mention GPS navigators, to that. Simple! Where is the polarity? There is only complementarity.
Failure to understand these simple economic ideas is behind the Republican resistance to funding basic research. Some simplistic brands of conservatism have a natural tendency toward a static world view. In one sense, that is precisely what the word "conservative" means. The obvious implication is that it fails to see inevitable change, often even fears it, and clearly fights it.
It also means this kind of conservatism is intrinsically short-sighted, since slow change means the future looks essentially like our recent past. Well, we're changing very fast and have been for quite a while. A relatively static world view cannot deal with that reality well enough to make smart moves based on accurate assessment of even near-term needs in the future. Reality is the reason that, in the not-so-long view, this kind of conservatism is doomed to failure. This can happen in two ways, one of which is catastrophic. In its current, intensely myopic incarnation, radical conservatism is either doomed to disappear from the political landscape or our country is doomed to lose its leadership in the world arena.
Copyright August 2013 - Robert P. Wendell
Revised December 2013.
Redistribution freely permitted contingent upon the unmodified inclusion of this copyright claim.