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You Can Only Win The Future If You Invest In It

2014 November 9
by Greg Satell

For a relatively young country, America has had a continuing love affair with tradition.  From the way we revere the Constitution to watching football on Thanksgiving Day, we often look to posterity for guidance.

When other countries talk about the past, it’s usually about kings and battles, but in the US we speak of founding principles.  Yet perhaps the most important legacy comes from a man named Vannevar Bush (no relation to the political Bushes), who probably did more than anyone else to create the America we know today.

When Bush was born in 1890, America was a backwater.  Students in the sciences would usually have to go to Europe to earn a doctorate.  By the time he died, in 1974, the US lead the world in science, commerce and military affair.  Bush played a central role in making that happen.  Lately though, his legacy has been subject to not only neglect, but outright attack.

Science, The Endless Frontier

Vannevar Bush was a man of unusual talents.  A distinguished professor at MIT, he built the Differential Analyzer, a precursor to modern computers.  He was also a successful entrepreneur, co-founding Raytheon, which today is a Fortune 500 company worth more than $30 billion.  However, it was in government where Bush had his greatest impact.

In 1938, he entered public service, first at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor of NASA, then at National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) and at the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), where he oversaw the Manhattan Project and the development of radar.

Because science played such a pivotal role in the war, President Roosevelt, just before his death, asked Bush to write a report about how to organize future funding for science.  That report, called Science, The Endless Frontier, was presented to Truman in 1945.  It proposed the formation of a new government agency to direct government funds for basic research.

Bush laid out his reasoning:

Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn. New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science.

He also argued persuasively that government funding for basic research would be key to national competitiveness, saying that, “there must be a stream of new scientific knowledge to turn the wheels of private and public enterprise.”  His proposal envisioned a partnership of government, academia and private industry.

The report led directly to the creation of the National Science Foundation and indirectly to other scientific efforts such as Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  The impact, if anything, has been greater than Bush, or anyone else, could have imagined.

Where The iPhone Really Came From

As Vannevar Bush noted in his report to Truman, “basic research is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws.”  Its impact is rarely obvious at the outset and can only be determined years, sometime decades, later.

To understand the effect Bush’s vision has had, you only have to look at an iPhone. Virtually every aspect, from the architecture and microchips to the Internet and GPS, began as a program that Bush created or inspired.  Even Siri, its artificial intelligence platform, received initial funding from the federal government.

And it’s no accident that Apple is located in the heart of Silicon Valley.  The region’s universities and industry became key recipients of government funding after World War II. The Bay area, in many ways, encapsulates Vannevar Bush’s vision of the partnership between government, academia and industry writ large.

So while none of this diminishes the efforts and importance of innovative entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, it is notable, to put it mildly, that US technology firms are so much more successful than those of other countries and that success invariably happens in such close proximity to government programs.

And that remains true today.  While tech entrepreneurs create applications for the Internet created decades ago, government scientists are working on a new Quantum Internet that consumers probably won’t see until decades from now.

The Backlash Against Science

Despite the obvious success of Bush’s legacy, it has recently come under fire from those who see basic research projects as wasteful, a sign of decadence rather than progress.  Although it represents just a fraction of 1% of the federal budget, they argue that we should cut funding for science in the name of fiscal austerity.

Leading the charge is Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn who released a report called The National Science Foundation: Under The Microscope, vilifying the agency.  His main complaints were that audits uncovered wasteful spending, that some programs, like educational initiatives, duplicate the work of other agencies such as the Dept. of Education and that much of the agency’s work seemed bereft of practical value.

These are not serious critiques.  It is not unusual for audits to find some waste and abuse in a large bureaucracy.  That is, after all, what audits are for.  It is also not clear why overlap with between agencies is a problem (in any case, Coburn wants serious cuts to education too) and basic research, as Bush noted, focuses on uncovering fundamental scientific principles, not practical applications.

Coburn is no less scathing of the NIH, which a congressional study found to have a return of investment between 25% and 40%.  NIH research led to 7 out of the 21 top drugs introduced between 1965 and 1992.  Clearly, in the aggregate, the money has been extremely well spent, but it’s all too easy to ridicule individual studies when the underlying principles are often indecipherable to laymen.

Today’s politicians would probably take the same potshots at Einstein’s “impractical” ideas about time and space, just as we can imagine the outrage at taxpayer dollars going to a government program to help university computers communicate.  But today we live in a world of the visceral abstract, where oddball theories result in real innovations like microprocessors and the Internet.

Lessons Long Forgotten

The lessons of forward thinkers like Vannevar Bush should be crystal clear.  Government funding of basic research is essential to our national interest.  Yet those lessons seem to have been long forgotten and funding for research is not only decreasing, it has become a convenient political target.

That matters because it affects how we deal with problems.  In the runup to the recent Ebola scare, Congress made drastic cuts to funding for the Ebola vaccine.  Now politicians histrionically call for travel bans and draconian quarantine regimes, neither of which is supported by the scientific community.

No one, it seems, is calling for actions that would actually help, such as returning funds to NIH and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the agencies that are charged for dealing with Ebola.  In fact, the cost of dealing with the current crisis will siphon resources away from preventing the next one, making us even more vulnerable still.

Crisis prevention is being neglected and crisis response politicized.  That’s not a recipe for success.  Just as prattling on about the “entrepreneurial spirit” will not create the scientific insights that entrepreneurs need to dream up the next generation of products.  Bluster is no substitute for prudence and good sense.

Politicians on the stump never miss a chance to wax glowingly about their pride in our nation’s accomplishments—and rightly so.  Yet they would serve the country better if they remembered how we got here.  Investment in science and basic research made America the most innovative nation on earth.  That legacy is now under attack.

You can only win the future if you invest in it.

– Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. November 9, 2014

    Wow. this is a great post and important. Without basic research we would and will be much poorer. Corporations cannot fund this kind of research for precisely the reasons Mr. Coburn touts, that is public corporations have fiduciary responsibilities to investors that in general block spending that is not directly related to building sales and profit.
    On the other hand, basic research has provided so much value it is almost impossible to estimate. The problem is the time frame, which is always unknown and the fact that research leads to many dead ends. It is painful to see research projects broken out in such as way as to ridicule them, and I am sure some are wastes of time and money. Yet without these, further advancements would not come as all projects are built on the works before them.
    This is actually the work government is best at, doing things we cannot or will not do on our own. Research is as much a part of infrastructure as a highway or a bridge which by the way we also need to upgrade. Let’s hope people read, consider and get on board. Thanks Greg


    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Robert. Great points! What’s really interesting is how it is often the most abstract ideas that have the greatest impact. Einstein never thought his work would find practical applications within his lifetime, but it only took about 25 years. An obscure problem in formal logic brought us computers in about the same time.

    You can easily imagine today’s politicians calling people like Kurt Godel and John von Neumann demanding to show what practical applications their work had and then ridiculing their answers as they struggled to discuss advanced work in lay terms.

    – Greg


  2. November 10, 2014

    Hi Greg – excellent post. There has been a similar situation in the UK, albeit with less of a draconian approach to funding. The issue in the last 20 years or so has been the evaluation of research proposals in the context of their industrial applicability. This forces academics to think commercially, in most cases without the mindset or experience to do so. It drives them to seek collaboration with industry, who inevitably will influence the research direction further away from curiosity and more towards tangibility; and who can blame them.

    There is a fundamental lack of logic in this trend. Commercial applications of research inevitably result from thinking in the current frame of knowledge. The future depends on the generation of new knowledge. Monoclonal antibodies, stem cells, the study of C. elegant (a nematode worm) etc etc have all produced important knowledge, which THEN became commercially useful.



    Greg Reply:

    That’s very true. What’s more, governments (and large institutions in general) tend to be very poor judges of which new innovations will be commercially viable.


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