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WHAT I LEARNED ON MY CHRISTMAS VACATION

posted Dec 27, 2012, 12:36 PM by David Watson

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard...”

--John F. Kennedy, President of the United States of America, September 12th, 1962.

 

            The morning after the big paper-ripping extravaganza my wife and I mobilized.  We got up, drank our obligatory java, and headed out to buy provisions—sodas, pretzels, cheese crackers, and the like.  We came home, woke the teens, rounded up the pre-teens, and organized our team to pack the family minivan with the efficiency of a NASCAR pit crew.  Then it was off to the races, or at least over the hills and through the woods to grandmother's house.  We don't go every year, and certainly not often enough, but when we do, I can count on an earful; about research, healthcare, public education, and government spending in general.  Folks up in "fly-over" country are eager to tell me what, how, and why this or that should (or should not) be done by the federales in Washington to “fix this mess”.   As I’m something of a bureaucrat myself these days, my opinion is considered biased—so mostly I listen.  Though it isn’t my mission specifically to uncover such information during trips to the farm, I generally find out anyway, what it is that those hearty, tax-paying souls think about their government’s Research and Development spending (and especially that which is near and dear to us in Southeast Texas—namely, NASA).  First, though, let's look at some facts relating to Federal R&D expenditures, and about our space program in particular.

            A brochure available from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS; one of the component institutions of the National Institutes of Health) is entitled "Why Do Basic Research?"  This is a valid question when resources are scare (and they always are).  The answer offered in the NIGMS report is that there is simply a great deal we do not yet know; indeed, for some diseases, too little is understood to even begin to consider options for either prevention or treatment.  Quoting from the NIGMS document: "Too many efforts to direct untargeted (basic) research toward specific goals may reduce the chance that something really interesting will emerge."  The essayist and biologist Lewis Thomas said "It is hard to predict how science is going to turn out, and if it is really good science it is impossible to predict."  David Hounshell, a historian of science, points out that the giant DuPont Corporation once took a retrospective look at its ability to ascertain which of its technologies under development would pay off (and which wouldn't).  DuPont discovered that it clearly could make no such predictions. 

How then should the costs of basic research be weighed against the benefits it provides?  The distinguished Chairperson of the Federal Reserve, Mr. Alan Greenspan, has said "...the phenomenal performance of the U.S. economy, with its strong growth, low inflation, low unemployment, and high business profits, is due in large part to technological innovations that have caused productivity growth to accelerate."  President Bush has recently stated that "Science and technology have never been more essential to the defense of the nation and the health of our economy."  During a speech at the annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the President's assistant for Economic Policy, Mr. Larry Lindsey, offered that the average annual return on R&D investment by corporations is roughly 9%, but the rate for Federal investment in basic research is nearly 30%, or more than triple the return.  Mr. Lindsey further pointed out that NASA's share of the funding pie during the glory days of the moon race was on the order of $80 billion per year in current dollars.  This figure is greater than five times the current NASA budget.  By way of turning these spending numbers back around, it is a fact that in excess of 70% of publications cited in U.S. industry patents result from public support. 

What is the public’s mood regarding investment in research?  Polls consistently indicate that nine out ten Americans favor dedicating more dollars to medical research, and more than 60% would support a doubling of such expenditures over five years.  More than 85% of our fellow citizens consider it “very important” for the United States to keep up our role as the world leader in research.  Recent polls indicating only modest enthusiasm for a new plan to send humans outside low earth orbit need close scrutiny; it is among the oldest political tricks in the book to make us choose between two alternatives, both of which are very important to us (e.g. space exploration or domestic programs and security), rather than allowing for both and eliminating another choice we as the taxpayers dislike.

Here’s what I learned from John Q. Taxpayer (i.e. my Dad).  We should never forget from where we come, and why we willingly render unto Caesar.  That is to say that the ongoing purpose of basic research, even of the vaunted National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is and should ever be the betterment of our country (and our world) for all its people.  This ought to include enhancing our quality of life and continuously pursuing full employment.  It should be oriented toward increasing our safety and health, and aimed at creating a fair and equitable society for all of us.  Wise and worthy insights from "flyover" country.

 

"Ad Astra Per Aspera. Semper Exploro"

(Translated from the Latin, it reads "To the Stars, Despite Adversity. Always Explore")

                                                                                                                                                                                              --From the logo memorializing the crew of Columbia and to my dad Richard M. “Dick” Watson

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