Post No.: 0117
Some people ask what’s the point in space research, science in general, furthering knowledge and the (often public) money spent on these activities? But many others and I see exploring and learning as living as opposed to merely existing. Money just for the sake of making even more money is not progress – resources spent on research, even if it sometimes fails (that’s the risk when pushing into the unknown) is noble and is precisely what has built the advanced technological world many people take for granted today.
Some wonder why scientists do some of the seemingly pointless, abstract and expensive research they undertake (e.g. smashing atoms together) rather than do stuff (directly) for the economy – but you never know how they’ll shape the technologies we’ll take for granted in the future. For instance, superconducting magnets, nuclear magnetic resonance, computer tomography and other areas of research all eventually led to the creation of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machines, which have helped save many people’s lives as medical examination tools. Both ‘blue sky’ or fundamental research and targeted research are therefore useful.
Collaborations also time and again eventually pay off, either between fields, firms and/or nations. For example, from Cold War tensions to the Russians and Americans (and others) coming together to eventually build the International Space Station – isn’t it so much better and exciting to get along? (The collaboration was borne from an interdependent relationship and therefore peace. Why hurt each other when you recognise that you need each other?) The ISS is a symbol of our collaboration to venture closer to heaven, and heaven on Earth is just a courageous interdependent friendship away. Woof!
The invention – or really the practical commercial viability – of light bulbs involved the right glassmaking technologies, finding the right gas medium, finding the right filament material, the discovery of electricity, and then a way of electrifying cities and homes. So Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan were hardly the only inventors involved in their own successes. If one thing of another person’s work were not present or right then their own creations would’ve failed or wouldn’t have been conceived of at all. No one made or makes it alone when you truly analyse it.
Most patents don’t make a penny because each inventor alone typically does not have enough expertise or resources to create something revolutionary – this is why companies that can produce (or often buy) hundreds or thousands of patents have the advantage and greatest chance of aggregating innovations into something revolutionary. It’s a teamwork, and not only of the people today but also with the contributions of our predecessors, whom each probably had nothing much on their own, but when put together, something great emerges collectively. So entrepreneurs owe it to these scientists and their research that is frequently publicly funded (i.e. by taxpayers) too, even though it’s the entrepreneurs who tend to get the credit for boosting the economy.
Modern tech millionaires and billionaires (and those in other sectors) owe much of their creations and wealth to these pioneering scientists and inventors before them – and a lot of this research was and is funded by public taxes too, so therefore these people literally owe a lot back to the public sector/governments too. We often over-credit or over-blame the last person or thing in a chain of contributions that led to a result (e.g. goalkeepers in football – where if the rest of the team played better then the opponents wouldn’t have had a shot on one’s goal at all). Entrepreneurs are only the last people in a long chain of contributions made by many people before them (or maybe not even the last but the most visible because shop floor and frontline staff, for instance, who may have had a publicly-funded education and healthcare to help make them employable, make their businesses happen too).
Any firm that takes advantage of e.g. microchips, the Internet or GPS, takes advantage of publicly-funded inventions; and the more profitable a firm is, the more a firm is taking advantage of such creations. (Maybe tax monies don’t always head back to the precise nation’s public sectors that funded these creations, but taxes based on a percentage of profits (that have not been base eroded or profit shifted) is more appropriate than referring to the absolute tax bill of a firm, especially when we factor in the proportional usage of public infrastructure and other public goods, where taxes are payable to the precise nation’s governments (i.e. the nation’s people in general) where a firm operates and (truly) generates its turnover. But this is another subject for a future post or two.)
Private sector firms – especially publicly-traded private sector firms – need more immediate profits or at least investor confidence of returns compared to the opportunity cost of investment otherwise they’ll have a cash flow problem and cease to exist, which is why the public sector often funds such fundamental research since there’s less pressure to generate immediate returns for shareholders.
New technologies do sometimes potentially need regulation in case of foreseeable negative consequences to e.g. people’s privacy or safety, but there are so many things to research that would benefit humankind that has no immediate or foreseeable profits to be made (e.g. natural disaster research). Development and creativity is seldom linear too. No one’s saying put every penny into research because there are many more pressing public and commercial needs to fulfil but it’s overall worth supporting fundamental scientific research even if no one yet knows what to do with the findings and there’s no immediate commercial worth.
Woof! If you can think of any modern technology that was invented and made successful without the creation of other inventions before them first then please let us know via the Twitter comment button below.