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NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research
8

NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

3
(OP)
Although slightly old news for Canadians, I’m unsure of its exposure level outside of Canada and I feel it’s one of the most important stories surrounding the question “Where is Canadian Science Going in the Next 5 Years” and it certainly extends outside the frozen tundra of the North.

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC), Canada’s leading organization for scientific research and development, has announced that it will change its philosophy to become a tool box for industry driven R&D and will focus on “commercially viable” research. John McDougall, the president of the NRC said "Innovation is not valuable unless it has commercial value”. Gary Goodyear, the Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, also stated “There is [sic] only two reasons why we do science and technology. First is to create knowledge ... second is to use that knowledge for social and economic benefit. Unfortunately, all too often the knowledge gained is opportunity lost.” In a nutshell, curiosity-driven science out, corporate R&D in (and note that this corporate R&D will be partially funded by the government and using government labs/experts).

For me, this results in the union of embarrassment and anger, as someone in the field of science and technology and as a Canadian citizen. Although not a unique occurrence in Harper’s war on science, it is, perhaps, the most abhorrent.

Before I open the floor to see what my fellow engineers think of this decision, I’ll add a few bullet points on why I feel so strongly about this:
  • How can anyone determine what research will become “commercially viable”
  • No one thought Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism would be “commercially viable” when it came out but look what it led to. Quantum Theory is one of the most counter-intuitive, most abstract concepts around but without it modern day electronics wouldn’t be anything like what they are today.
  • If it’s “commercially viable”, why does the government need to subsidize this research for private corporations? If a corporation is too short-sighted to see the value in “commercially viable” R&D, then shouldn’t we allow free-market Darwinism to let it die?
  • - This is why I can’t wrap my head around why even the Conservatives would think this is a good idea
  • It discourages companies to promote “in house experts” as they can use NRC resources. In fact it encourages companies to abandon in house R&D programs. Why pay your own experts/lab when you can use NRC’s?
  • - Shouldn’t promoting “free-loaders” be an anti-Conservative ideology? (or is it ok when it’s a corporate “free-loader” but bad when it's a citizen "free-loader")
  • Disconnect between projects with “societal benefit” and “commercial value”. These things, although not mutually exclusive, are certainly not one in the same goal. This difference is exacerbated when projects are industry driven. Industry has no obligation to produce a “societal benefit”, in fact it is legally responsible to operate in the best interest of its shareholders over that of society or even its employees
  • Possibly a less pragmatic, more romanticized, argument but one which I hold close to my chest: curiosity driven science is a humanizing endeavour. It provides purpose, place and connectivity. It’s the only enterprise (aside from pure survival/reproduction) that spans across cultures and time. It is our greatest achievement as a species and one which we can all take pride in. To replace curiosity driven science with economic viability is a great perversion of humanity; it makes me feel empty.
What do you think? Brilliant decision that will bolster the economy or short-sighted invasion of science by corporate lackey governments? (or something slightly less hyperbolically melodramatic)

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

I agree completely. A lot of benefit has occurred by letting the best and brightest toil away in their labs
on whatever their passion is.

Politicians have trouble seeing the world in a statistical nature, such as simultaneously evaluating all prospects at once.

The best solution should be chosen from the spectrum of all possible actions with each weighted by a cost/benefit function
that uses the probability of each possible outcome weighted by the expected result.

This is the recipe for rational and objective government with a long term focus but rarely is it attempted.

I think we as a society use to be better at this. We had a sense of common purpose and took a little bit of a hit for the common good.

For instance in education, we once knew that our country is better overall if our citizens are educated and the cost must be born out for the good of all. Today its more like, " I am not paying taxes for kids at THAT school"

Maybe its a result of affluence and possibly a limit on how affluent a society can get before it begins to turn on itself.






RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

To answer your question, I don't know. Some of what you have written may be correct. The value judgement on those outcomes may be in dispute.

I read an interesting op-ed piece that I think takes a neutral perspective on this - http://business.financialpost.com/2013/05/14/how-s...

rconnor - you should probably share with the rest of the world what you mean by "Harper's war on science".

Also, for some context: Canada's federally-governing party is called "Conservative". They are relatively right-wing from a Canadian perspective. On a global context, they would be considered fairly centrist - given that there are many entrenched policies that some (our American neighbours) would consider fairly leftist. (Complicated, I know...).

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

We got a lot of commercially viable stuff out of NASA, but that was not any part of their mission... That should be a government hands-off. Then again, the taxpayers of Atlanta just gave a pro football team $300 million. The Falcons were already kind-of commercially viable.

Best to you,

Goober Dave

Haven't see the forum policies? Do so now: Forum Policies

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

(OP)
TGS4,

Sorry, for the lack of details pertaining to Canadian politics, thanks for including some (along with the more neutral article). As for (Stephen) Harper's (the current PM of Canada) "war on science", here is a link to a lengthy list of moves by the our Government.

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

Good list rconnor. I know that everybody loves a good "war on" something (war on drugs, war on terror, etc). Kinda like how every controversy gets appended the adage "-gate". I don't know if I would classify what Harper has done as a war on science so much as a defunding of government science and federal environmental oversight. Some may take a political viewpoint that this is good/bad/otherwise. Certainly for the scientists who were funded by this and now they have no benefactor, it may certainly seem personal.

Without getting into issues of Canadian Constitutional areas of responsibility/jurisdiction, suffice it to say that some of the items on that list were federal duplicates of provincial responsibilities. Nevertheless, there has been a significant defunding of federal scientists and science programs.

I think that there is a place for pure research. However, without mortgaging our future (the US may get away with perpetual deficits, but we can't) something has to give. And, what's the harm in harnessing our nation's best scientists to do applied research for the betterment of the entire economy?

I still don't know if this was a good choice, or not. I'm curious to what others have to say - some outsider perspectives are interesting. However, I think that rconnor and I have provided sufficient background on the history, political or otherwise, of the situation.

Discuss. (rconnor - excellent topic to bring up - thank you!)

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

Big shouty post rconnor!

We had some nice prof from Imperial College give us a talk a while ago. He explained how to get more energy into a turbocharger by varying the turbine's vane angle through the engine cycle, or something like that. All looked good. And clever. Our technology director asked him how that would ever work in a real vehicle, since state-of-the-art mechatronics were not really up to it. "Not my problem, that's yours" was the answer. Absoluetly perfect in my mind. The university prof is in charge of people who think up crazy ideas, we in industry have to make them work. Many ideas fail. Some don't.

I even believe in teaching latin to schoolchildren.

- Steve

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

was it Franklin who, when asked "what's the value of this new fangled electricity thing ?", replied "what's the value of a new born baby ?"

focusing on "commerically viable" research (whatever that means ... what's not viable today may be viable tomorrow) may give you short term benefits, but won't find "game-changers" (sorry)

Quando Omni Flunkus Moritati

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

For something to be "commercially viable" it must have an identified market. That seems to mean that future government research in Canada will be focused on Engineering problems like making the vanes adjustable on the turbocharger. Good and useful things come from research into improvements, but no ground gets broken. We never get fusion because (in my lay opinion) there is not an evolutionary path to fusion, a revolutionary breakthrough will be required. Some guy who sees the path through the forest will give us long-duration fusion reactions. That guy could be anywhere. He could even be in a government research facility that gets redirected to making a better toaster.

I'm not a fan of federal money directly funding (and controlling) research anyway, but if it has a place it should absolutely be non-commercial. They should be investigating the mysteries of the ocean depths and deep space. They should be doing stuff at least a couple of generations (and 10 would be better) removed from the marketplace. When I got out of college in 1980 the Oil & Gas industry had dozens of top flight research and development centers. Ours was the Tulsa Research Center. They did stuff like develop a piece of software that they sold to IBM as PROFS that later morphed into Outlook, were awarded over 10,000 patents, did pioneering research into hydraulic fracture stimulation, developed protocols for remote-controlled well drilling (never went very far, but led to some breakthroughs in two-way communication of very large datasets that eventually became commercial). They also spent a ton of money on dead end stuff (one guy spent his entire career in Tulsa trying to develop chemicals that could change oil-wet rocks to water-wet rocks, and he spent a decade of that trying to find a way to measure wetability, never came to anything because we couldn't deliver the hydrophillic chemicals far enough into the reservoir).

During the Carter administration the tax laws changed and the special status of R&D expenditures went away and the industry decided that if R&D expenditures were going to get the same tax treatment as any other expenditure then they would have to compete on a near-term risk/reward basis with other projects. 20 years after Jimmy Carter the last of the Oil & Gas industry pure science facilities closed. When you have a 1 in 20 chance of commercial success and a decade's long time horizon, R&D just cannot compete with drilling a 30 day payout well with nearly 80% chance of success. Our industry shifted "research" money to college campuses. Nothing wrong with the research at campuses except the "Publish or Perish" and "what have you done this quarter" mentality. Doing multi-decade projects is rare on college campuses.

I just can't see anything good coming from federal money going to "commercial" research.

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering

"Belief" is the acceptance of an hypotheses in the absence of data.
"Prejudice" is having an opinion not supported by the preponderance of the data.
"Knowledge" is only found through the accumulation and analysis of data.
The plural of anecdote is not "data"

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

how much did the UK government support the development of the steam engine ?

who paid for this work ? (some forward thinking entrepreneurs with lots of money)

Quando Omni Flunkus Moritati

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

(OP)
TGS4 - You're quite right to question the "war on-" cliche, it's overplayed and over-the-top. I realize now I didn't use quotes around the "war on science" in my original post, which I meant to in order to highlight that it is just jargon. And yes, I was a little hesitant to link to that list because I’m not in agreement with all the points (as you pointed out) but it saved me from having to gather links to each separate point!

Also, thank you for providing a stabilizing tone to the conversation. I actually intended on keeping a neutral tone in order to stimulate debate (and then in my responses begin to open up my opinion)…but then I got swept up in my emotional reaction to this topic as I started to type it up.

SompthingGuy – ya…as I said above, my apologies.

rb1957 – I’d also add that it was the result of the Scottish Enlightenment. During this period, human ingenuity and curiosity (not just in science but the humanities as well) was set free and the long term benefits to society were immense. Human intellect, logic and reason were used to shape and improve society, government, commerce and science for the greater social good. I see acts like this as the opposite of the Enlightenment, where commerce is used to shape society, government and science for greater economic wealth (of a select few).

A few other issues as food for thought:
- Who will own the intellectual property rights of research through an NRC/corporate partnership? (The official statement was that they will come to an “agreement” which sounds a lot like “we haven’t thought about it much but they’ll figure it out”)
- How will this affect university funding/support?

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

Quote (zdas04)


During the Carter administration the tax laws changed and the special status of R&D expenditures went away and the industry decided that if R&D expenditures were going to get the same tax treatment as any other expenditure then they would have to compete on a near-term risk/reward basis with other projects. 20 years after Jimmy Carter the last of the Oil & Gas industry pure science facilities closed.

Are you sure about that? The only references I found concerning changes to the Federal tax code from that era, relative to the treatment of R&D expenditures, seems to show that these actually occured while Ronald Reagan was President:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_%26_Experime...

John R. Baker, P.E.
Product 'Evangelist'
Product Engineering Software
Siemens PLM Software Inc.
Industry Sector
Cypress, CA
Siemens PLM:
UG/NX Museum:

To an Engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

I remember that I was in college when I heard about the tax law change (1977-1980, most of the Carter years), one of my professors was REALLY angry about it and made sure we all knew what "our" President had done to him. I can't remember what the credit was before that time, but this change was in the same bundle of garbage as the so-called Windfall Profits Tax so it must have been 1980.

The Kemp Roth stuff that you referenced was a half-hearted effort to put the R&D credits back in the law, it didn't come close to putting R&D back on a level playing field with short-term productive projects on a risk/return basis.

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering

"Belief" is the acceptance of an hypotheses in the absence of data.
"Prejudice" is having an opinion not supported by the preponderance of the data.
"Knowledge" is only found through the accumulation and analysis of data.
The plural of anecdote is not "data"

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

I'm for equal opportunity. I like the serendipity of blue-sky topics. I also like the concept that someone who has a good idea, but needs funding, can apply for a grant - and get it. There is a lot of inbreeding in the grant process, it would be nice to think that deserving researchers are able to get funded.

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

The discussion really need not go farther than this:
>>How can anyone determine what research will become “commercially viable”<<

Of course no one can know the future.

The buzzphrase "Commercially Viable" reminds me of a hugely expensive introduction of a "New Product Development Process" some years ago. The core of the process later became known as "Stage Gate", meaning that nothing was allowed to move from idea toward production unless it was a guaranteed blockbuster success when it was reviewed in detail at every step. The company then sort of imploded, and the zombie shell has managed to produce nothing of note; no surprise there.



Mike Halloran
Pembroke Pines, FL, USA

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

And maybe this is just a ploy to be able to hand pick who gets funding. Who in there right mind would think politions would do that?

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

The key question is who decides what is "commercially viable"? Obviously from the discussion the companies gaining an advantage from the research will push to have the government fund their special project.

I have actually seen a big company doing a great deal of research in producing plastics from soybean oil. The advantage of a basicly a renewable product competing against an oil product is going to give a significant return on investment. This research happened to occur on a samll university campus meaning there was some support from the university but it was totally a company funded project. Now if funding had been given by a governmental agency it would have still occurred but not totally funded by the company. Saving the company money. Another the rich get richer and everybody else helps pay for it.

Commercially viable research is another give away to companies.

Bill

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

Looks like the road to State capitalism. If you don't like economic freedom, you should be supporting the government at the helm of a central planned economy instead of distributed economic freedom. One difference, when a company pays for their own R&D, there is a natural selection that takes place such that if they have a propensity to choose wrong, they are soon out of business. For the politician/bureaucrat, if they choose wrong on the redistribution of your tax money, they have a tendency to make the claim that the cause for failure was a result of not spending enough money. Hence, more good money is thrown after bad ideas. To do otherwise would require politicians and bureaucrats to be personally responsible for any bad decisions; with the results of them loosing their next election/appointment.

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

This is a politically choreographed method for the government to publicly rationalize funding their politically connected academic constituents. And they expect the masses to see the "validity" of their reasoning. Good luck with that.

Maui

www.EngineeringMetallurgy.com

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

I guess with this line doleing out money, they will never understand about the sex lives of insects.

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

Maui - I think that you hit the nail on the head. It has nothing to do with industry, academia, or even research. It's a way of funneling public money to friends.

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

(OP)
Although I’m certainly not trying to come to the defense of the government (especially this government), I think that the corporations that will benefit from this change are getting off light (which they always seem to do).

When times are good, companies tend to shift focus on keeping the good times going (increase manufacturing capacity or efficiency, buy up market share, pay out dividends, decide how much of a bonus they should pat themselves on the back with). Best quarter ever! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Then when times are bad, due to a “bad economy” (never their own short-sightedness), money is too tight to innovate their way out of trouble. Then they come to the government, arm out-stretched, palms open, spewing the same old statements that “if we fall, so does the economy” and “think of the jobs that will be lost” or, my personal favourite, “we are too tightly regulated!” (because deregulation has a great track record, I mean look at how well Enron did back in the 90’s or Wall Street in current times). All of this is a facade over the true reason: “remember those campaign contributions we gave you?”. People fear this is a step towards “state capitalism”, I think it’s another example of the “oligarchy” we live in.

In principal, I’m actually not opposed to governments supporting corporate R&D (I’d prefer it done as a form of tax incentives than direct funding though). I am opposed to it when it’s used as a copout by short-sighted companies, at the expense of programs that benefit citizens (not corporate citizens, actual people). I would class funding curiosity-driven/fundamental science as a program that benefits citizens. Furthermore, as zdas alluded to, if governments are to invest in science research, they should do it in areas that can’t be done by corporations or universities alone. I don’t expect Microsoft to build the next particle accelerator, that is the role of government organizations.

Now, (and here comes the bleeding-heart, scientific romanticist in me...) I don’t expect everyone to see (or agree with) the benefit in curiosity-driven science. Some of the more direct benefits to citizens are usually far too distant to predict at the time of the research. Other research will not have a tangible benefit to citizens but will help improve our body of scientific understanding; this, to me, is the crown jewel of our species and something that I wish more people, both scientific and non-scientific, appreciated more.

The field of Cosmology will hardly ever lead to any tangible, “commercially viable” benefit to society but the knowledge and understanding that comes from it is priceless. For me, nothing compares to the sense of connectivity, humility and awe I experience when I think on the fact that the atoms that comprise us did not exist at the genesis of the universe. They were, instead, formed through nuclear fusion in the core of stars that, in their death, spread those heavier atoms throughout the universe which later, through unimaginable odds, remerged to form a planet hospitable for conscious creatures to emerge. If people spent more time contemplating the fact that we, as Carl Sagan put it, are the “ash of stellar alchemy”, I don’t see how we could allow ourselves be so divided by political ideology, artificial geographic boundaries or personal greed. This is the greatest gift that curiosity-driven science has given us and yet it sits there, unopened by most.

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

why should the government fund research ?
particularly if the project is "commercially viable" !

i mean if anything gov't should research non-commercial projects, and leave the commerical ones for the free (ok, "free") market.

Quando Omni Flunkus Moritati

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

Governments should STICK to funding projects which have no immediate commercial applications- pure research. Those ideas with real financial viability can already find enough funding in the private equity market, or aren't worth doing.

Governments may directly subsidize work done on technological development, in the hope that they'll get a return on that investment in tax revenue. Regrettably, too often we see projects in which governments have more riding on the success of the investment than private equity does. Investors put up $X, which is then used to obtain $X from the provincial government and again $X from the federal government or agencies thereof, such that in the end private equity has $X and government has $2X riding on the outcome. If it fails, the scam artists still collect their salaries. If it DOES succeed, which is often not even in the plans of the people shaking down government for the money, government will receive a tiny fraction of the profit- the private equity folks will receive the bulk of it. It's a bad scheme, not in the public interest, and it's really a scam most of the time.

Governments shouldn't be involved in betting on technological winners and losers, ever. They're freaking terrible at it. Giving tax credits to firms for the research they do is a different matter- then it's just taxation deferred against future tax revenue. Instead, government should focus on taxation and regulation for public benefit.

The ones I hate worst are the mega-projects like the supercollider etc. Yes they have pure research benefit, but the costs and hence the waste associated are both huge and the benefits nebulous at best.

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

I invented a gadget. My theoretical understanding of the workings of the gadget was above "basic" but not nearly to "competent". In New Mexico we have two of the biggest National Laboratories in the country (Los Alamos and Sandia). Because of inept federal budgeting these labs periodically run out of money and have to furlough the staffs. The state saw this as a bad thing and offered to pay the staffs from state funds to work on projects for small New Mexico businesses. Businesses don't come any smaller then MuleShoe Engineering so I applied and was accepted. The fluids division of Los Alamos generated CFD models of my gadget and advanced my understanding of how, why, and (most importantly) when it worked by several orders of magnitude. They didn't spend much money and were able to utilize resources that would have otherwise been idle. Great idea. Great result. I am grateful.

That was in 2012. I was contacted in 2013 to see if there was any more theoretical work to be done and there was. I got a different guy this year. This guy wanted to build a test skid to do experiments. If I could put up $1 million, the DOE would pitch in $5 million for this project. I was OK with filling in the chinks in the budget process, but using $5 million of DOE money on a commercial project that really doesn't need to be done just doesn't work for me. I declined. I related this story as an example of government funding commercial "research" that really adds no value. Some of the stuff they are doing at Los Alamos is incredible basic research. Research that companies wouldn't ever take on. That is where the staff should be focusing, not on commercial stuff.

A couple of you hit the nail squarely on the head--when corporations can contribute to politicians, the politicians are too often beholden to the corporation. When the bone-headed Supreme Court ruled that corporations were people, they opened the door for corporations to own politicians. The end result is patronage. Corporations are not people, they are contracts. There shouldn't be a corporate income tax, but it should also be illegal for corporations to participate in the political process in any way at all. The should be banned from buying a city councilman a lunch (or buying a city councilman outright). I don't know how you make something like this happen, but not making it happen is the root of oh so many problems with our society.

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering

"Belief" is the acceptance of an hypotheses in the absence of data.
"Prejudice" is having an opinion not supported by the preponderance of the data.
"Knowledge" is only found through the accumulation and analysis of data.
The plural of anecdote is not "data"

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

Quote (zdas04)


When the bone-headed Supreme Court ruled that corporations were people, they opened the door for corporations to own politicians. The end result is patronage. Corporations are not people, they are contracts.

Something else we agree on thumbsup2

John R. Baker, P.E.
Product 'Evangelist'
Product Engineering Software
Siemens PLM Software Inc.
Industry Sector
Cypress, CA
Siemens PLM:
UG/NX Museum:

To an Engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

That's two. Could rapprochement be far away?

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering

"Belief" is the acceptance of an hypotheses in the absence of data.
"Prejudice" is having an opinion not supported by the preponderance of the data.
"Knowledge" is only found through the accumulation and analysis of data.
The plural of anecdote is not "data"

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

I just look at it as part of a cycle, sort of like insourcing and outsourcing in business. The problem is people game the system, so everyone assumes the solution is to change to a different system. The problem is the only other system out there is the one that did not work before because people were gaming the system. The only difference in the two systems, is the people gaming the system must play a different game. So by changing systems you will lose some short term thinker game players, and others will rush in.

If you look around you will see this same sort of osolating systems in different industries, and methods, and yes goverment solutions. I have several t-shirts from new industry ideas that were ment to introduce each.

I guess we can call this osolating systems as AC human methodology. Nothing new to see here.

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

(OP)
Molten (and indirectly, others),

Although I understand that your contention begins at some price level, I cannot gauge how you calculate the cost/benefit for these “mega-projects”. It’s this personal cost/benefit analysis of curiosity-driven science I was interested in discussing with people, so thanks for bringing it up.

Allow me, with a patented lack of brevity (but, hopefully, comprehensively), to go through the stream of logic. Anyone is open to challenge any of my assertions along the way.

I believe that contentions to such projects falls under one of the following categories
1) Due to the cost, these projects should never be built, regardless of the possible findings or advancements to science (“Cost rejection”)
2) Humans have no business probing nature in such ways (“The Wako Anti-Science Rejection”)
3) Due to the cost, these projects should only be built if the findings have a high probability of providing direct, tangible benefit to society – based purely on the economics (“Tangible Cost/Benefit Contention”)
4) Due to the cost, these projects should only be built if the findings have a high probability of significantly advancing the body of scientific knowledge (“Knowledge Cost/Benefit Contention”)

Hopefully I can dismiss the “Cost Rejection” outright, certainly it is far more rational to review such projects in terms of cost/benefit. I put in “The Anti-Science Rejection”, which is really another form of the “Cost Rejection”, as a (unfunny) joke but you’d be amazed at how many people reject such projects on these grounds (if anyone here shares the view of contention #2, and is subsequently offended by my naming of it, I’d be glad to discuss why I dismiss it so flippantly in more detail).

The Tangible Cost/Benefit Contention is a valid and pragmatic means of questioning such projects. However, as you stated, these sorts of projects will rarely, if ever, pass such a test because their tangible benefits are either too difficult to predict at the time or too distant to have any punctual impact. It is for these two reasons that the tangible benefits are rarely used as justification for such projects; instead, they are justified on the grounds of the knowledge that will be gained.

After it, inevitably, fails the tangible cost/benefit test, you are left with two choices: 1) stop your thought process and decide that the project shouldn’t be done or 2) move onto the Knowledge Cost/Benefit Contention.

To stop here, and by your wording it makes it sound like this is where you stop, is to throw in the towel on many fields of study. Particle physics and cosmology/astronomy are two examples of fields that have almost all of the low hanging (cheap) fruit picked and to further advance them requires serious investments that have little prompt, tangible benefit. These are also subjects which aim to solve the greatest mysteries and deepest questions imaginable. If we don’t move onto investigating the benefit of the knowledge gained, we must admit that we have made a conscious decision to stop seriously searching for answers, we’ve allowed a mystery to remain unchallenged.

I’m sorry but that’s not something that humans do. With consciousness comes curiosity. To say that we can’t attempt to quench this fundamental and profound thirst for knowledge because the ROI is unsatisfactory, is dehumanizing in the deepest sense. I have to ask, in the most serious way possible, what are we doing here?

Now, to say that we have more pressing concerns than doing large scale fundamental research projects, is another valid point but it begins to move us into the realm of the Knowledge Cost/Benefit Contention. It is to say that we understand there is value beyond the tangible benefit but such value is small in comparison to other current issues.

Before we move into the concept of prioritizing issues, we need to look at defining the benefit of knowledge. My main argument here is that the investigation of nature is the most humanizing endeavour imaginable. Not for some teleological reason but as a means of satisfying human’s contrived need to assert purpose onto our lives, I feel that the quest for a complete understanding of nature is the most defensible “purpose” that humanity as a whole can prescribe to (I won’t go into that defense here but would gladly if people think this point weakens my argument). My other argument is that our civilization has improved in lockstep with our understanding of science, in survival rates, comfort and ethics. To say that we should stop scientific exploration in a field because we can’t seem to justify the cost is to ignore the historical record. These delayed-societal benefits are beyond measure and beyond compare.

The problem of prioritization is a very personal issue. It incorporates the personal view of the role of government, what makes a “better” society, what problem is “worse” and therefore more in need of fixing, what is the correct “fix”. This is a very complex argument in and of itself, which I won’t get into here. However, I hope that I demonstrated that we cannot categorically dismiss fundamental science because it doesn’t satisfy an some ROI calculation. It holds weight and can be argued against other pressing issues pushing for public funds. Some (popular and, ya, overused, yet illustrative) examples, the Iraq-Afghanistan “war”/occupation cost more than the entire 50 year budget of NASA. Furthermore, the US spends more money on air conditioning for soldiers in Afghanistan than they do for NASA (I’m not against keeping soldiers comfortable, I just feel they’d be much more comfortable back in the US). Now if you argument is between whether we spend more on science at the expense of social services, I’m much more sympathetic to that statement. However, both those coffers are single digit percentages of your tax dollar and the wiggly room is so tight it erodes the strength of that argument.

Furthermore, your example of super-colliders being something that you outright dismiss (“hate” was your word) is an odd choice in light of recent discoveries at the LHC. However, I suppose if you don’t see any value in the discovery of the Higgs Boson, you would still argue that it was a “waste” (if you can’t go from the tangible cost/benefit contention to the knowledge cost/benefit contention). If you think this, then you by extension admit that you’d want us to dust our hands of experimental particle physics, just give up on that field of study (or limit it to pencil and paper theories...or you have some other method of recreating events at the big bang in your garage?).

What about space exploration? Is this a wasteful “mega-project” with nebulous benefits?

I’m sorry but I will not give up on increasing our understanding of where we came from and where we are going (in the deepest sense) because it offers “nebulous” fiscal benefits. It offers the benefit of fulfilling what it means to be human, to be curious, to be conscious.

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

rconnor: extremely well reasoned, as always. The length of your post is forgiven as everything you said aided your point.

Given a choice between funding the war in Afghanistan and funding the Large Hadron Collider, I certainly consider the former to be the far greater waste, so we agree there.

If I were to consider the investment in the Large Hadron Collider versus a similar investment in finding a cure for malaria, the latter to me would seem, to me at least, to be of more immediate importance.

Both endeavours would generate residual benefits, whether successful or not. Both move money through the economy. Then again, so does a natural disaster, or a war for that matter.

Can we do both the LHC and a massive investment in finding a cure for malaria? Certainly we can, if we choose to. But for some reason or another, we choose not to do the one of immediate interest to easing the suffering of humankind. No, instead we do the "sexy" one- the one that politicians can have ribbon-cutting events in front of.

If we were to take the same amount of money that was spent on the LHC, and instead spend it on 1,000 smaller projects, would the net outcome for humankind be better or worse? Guess it depends on whether or not the work succeeds on the big one. But any of those 1000 others could discover something which revolutionizes how we think about the universe- or solves some other pressing problem ten or twenty years hence.

I definitely support government investment in pure research- in fact my main point was that I'm against governments investing in commercialization of existing technology, since that's something that the markets can and should do on their own. I'm just skeptical about the value of putting huge amounts of money into single experiments. I see the reasons these projects get funded as having less to do with answering the big questions we as humans want answered, and more to do with the mechanism of politics in a democratic society. Granted, the LHC was targeted at a very significant issue of fundamental interest to our understanding of the universe at its most basic level, and it appears that it was successful. But what if it wasn't successful? We agree that the residual benefits of a failed LHC are far better than those of a failed war, but as an investor I believe in diversification.

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

Here's the problem, not the it is limited to science, or medicine, but some parts of the population of humans are corrupt. So what method of funding leads to the least amount of corruption? 1) If the doners directly pick the projects that they feel are worth while. Problem: Most doners don't have the level of capital for many large projects like super coliders, or putting a man on the moon. 2) Have goverment make the decision of what becomes funded. Problem: Too much money gets unwisley spent. 3) Grant Money to universitys. Problem: Too much money gets unwisley spent. 4) Croud sourcing on science funding. Problem: Starving science professors who are willing to do junk science for a living.

Any more methods I missed?

Any one been to a starving artest sale, can you guess what a starving professor event would look like? (Wine, black ties, nice meal)?

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

Perhaps some X prize style motivation. That is placing a high technical goal and rewarding handsomely the first entity to deliver credible results.

On pure research, I would err on trusting the best scientists with money. If they are leaders in their field then they are passionate about their work and the money comes in second. Fund the most brilliant of them in research fields that are the most far reaching in implications, and trust them.



RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

I like the X-prize idea. It prompted several engineering teams to innovate, and Burt Rutan's team was especially exciting to watch. I certainly would have enjoyed being a part of it.

But on pure research (if you could even define that properly) I would be reluctant to trust the institutions that receive the money to spend it properly. I know through personal experience that many of these institutions skim over 30% right off the top for "overhead" when the money comes in the door. And how do we establish who is the most qualified among these scientists to receive funding? Please don't say "whoever published the most papers on (whatever area of research)". It seems that the heads of funding agencies can't read, but they can count. And they traditionally look at the number of publicatiuons, and not their content, to determine which of these scientists are "worthy" of funding. Utter garbage. I personally know of scientists who have learned how to work the system to get funding but whose research is nothing new, revolutionary, or even worth funding in my opinion. If you have the right connections, you'll probably get funding. And if you don't, you probably won't.

Maui

www.EngineeringMetallurgy.com

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

The use of the term "commerically viable" sounds as if it opens the door to filtering or censorship based on the opinion or influence of industrial interest groups. In the worst case, if exposure of a scientific fact implicates an industrial entity to some liability or to a reduction in their market potential , then such facts will be buried. It is not clear that such a policy is in the best long term interests of society , cosnidering the products of this technology will be around us for the next 500,000 yrs.

"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! "

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

(OP)
Molten,

Excellent post; I knew your original post was just a one sentence comment with more reasoning behind it and I was not disappointed. I find myself in complete agreement with almost everything you said; where I differ it is more in the semantics than in the spirit of your statements.

Firstly, you bring up a great point that projects like the LHC getting funding because they come with a politically sexy ribbon-cutting event. Although one could argue that because it was an international endeavor, it would be difficult for any one politician to trumpet the project as his or her own achievement (despite the fact they probably all have), the broader commentary that these mega-projects receive funding for reasons outside of the scientific gains is very true and very important. Another good example would be the Apollo missions. This had nothing to do with scientific progress or achievement, it had everything to do with the cold war.

There are many that would take a Machiavellian stance on this issue to justify or dismiss the means by showing the benefits that came from it. I must admit that I have, at times, used this stance to defend the LHC from similar attacks but I now feel that it’s a very shallow defense. The reason is that if the underlying reasons why we do large-scale, curiosity driven science is actually as a political ploy, and not for the knowledge gained, it sets a faulty and highly exploitable precedent. It’s another example of our political system putting the greater good of society as a tertiary priority behind getting re-elected (keeping lobby groups happy) and acquiring/keeping campaign contributions (keeping corporate donors happy) (which is sort of one in the same).

Let’s take your example of Malaria example, which brings up a lot of interesting points. We are fully capable of eradicating it or dramatically minimizing its impact. The financial investment would be less than the LHC or about a couple months in Afghanistan. But it isn’t sexy, it is only a problem in areas of the world far removed from any area of interest to lobby groups or voting class. The obvious contention to this would be “why should the government be supporting people outside it’s domain while we have so many problems at home?”. However, surely there would be some altruistic benefit to citizen of the supporting country, knowing their government was instrumental in saving thousands of lives in another country. Furthermore, if you share the view governments shouldn’t “support” people outside it’s domain because it doesn’t have the funds to support its own issues than why is solving Malaria on the chopping block but Vietnam, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, pretty much every country in Central America, Iraq (again), Afghanistan (again) still given the green light? (and this is without even going into the problems these interventions have caused)

Now the common reaction is to say “well of course I don’t support my governments involvement in these occupations”, then why are we sitting here debating whether funding of the LHC should come out of the coffer of Malaria research/social aid funds/etc (or vise-versa). We seem to agree that we have a much less useful, much bigger pot to draw from to fund both malaria and large scale science projects (…maybe there’s a connection between the fact that I listed American military actions and the fact that America’s Higgs seeking super-collider was cancelled, while the EU has been comparatively light on spreading involuntary freedom and seemed to be able to find the funds for the LHC).

This is what always seems to happen when social conscious, scientifically inclined people start talking about costly scientific endeavors, they end up arguing that we have more pressing, more ethical social issues that need the money more (which I don’t disagree with); we are convinced it’s an either/or (which I do disagree with). To revise a quote for the Usual Suspects, the greatest trick the [powers that be] ever pulled was convincing the world that [there isn’t enough money for both scientific research and social benefit programs], and then poof, [the money’s] gone [to fund unnecessary, morally bankrupt invasions and corporate bail outs].

To briefly touch on your point of what if the LHC didn’t find the Higgs? Actually, if you hear people like Brian Greene talk about the discovery of the Higgs, they will admit part of them is a little disappointed that it was the Higgs. Finding the Higgs validates the standard model (which is a good thing) but finding some non-Higgs particle would revolutionize particle physics. Furthermore, finding nothing would also require serious changes to the particle physics because it would mean that the Higgs either doesn’t exist or exists in a different energy range predicted, either of which would say the current calculations/assumptions are incorrect and new theories need to be formed (but this would realistically doom any chances of a bigger, more powerful collider ever being built).

In fact, super-symmetry is facing this exact problem right now. According to theory, the expected energy ranges of super-symmetrical particles has already been eclipsed; some say that this is the lowering of the super-symmetry coffin into the grave, others say it just means we need to look at different energy levels. Either way, the brilliant thing about science is that a failed experiment can tell you quite a bit about a theory or provide clues as to where else you should look. Furthermore, the greatest scientific discoveries are rarely a “eureka!” moment, they are usually a “that’s odd” moment (good example would be cosmic microwave background radiation…they were chiseling bird poop off their instruments thinking that was causing the interference when it was really the afterglow of the big bang).

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

Wow it's a bit late to jump in on this. I must make two contrasts here, because the discussion often shades two groups as opposites, when they are two sides of the same coin.

1
The first point is just a list. Things that were invented, or discovered, which have had a profound impact on everyone's lives. These stories are passed down, often in rather simplified form. Looked at in detail there is NO clear distinction between the benefit of public money or private money in the development of nearly anything. Examples that come easily to mind:

- geometry: state funding (Egyptians) but ancient Greeks with wealthy shipping families perfected it to make more money
- calculus: state and private funding (Newton was a denizen of Trinity College while Leibniz was independently wealthy and did what the hell he pleased)
- aircraft: private funding (Wright bros) then public funding took over (NACA)
- rockets: state funding (Jiao Yu) followed by more states wanting them (Ghengis Khan, Nazis, NASA)
- transistor: private funding (AT&T Bell labs) and quickly became so cheap nobody needed a government to pay for them
- electron: state funding (Thompson/Rutherford/Lorentz, all university researchers) but then TV's were invented by various russians, germans, and americans, all on their own dime, it seems

...on and on. It's always been a shared responsibility, in all human societies. A society will not thrive long-term if it relies solely on research carried out by privately funded ventures. However it doesn't mean that the state's goals are always honourable either, even if the long-term result of the technology is good.

2
The second thing I want to contrast are the varying goals that science and research can take up. Here it is not all one grab bag. Science is capable of discovering cures for diseases, better materials, cleaner chemical processes, and these are all results in the public good. They will profit both society and business, another reason why both dimensions of society can fund these projects.

There is, however, a different task that science can do, which is not so goal-oriented, and simply carried out for the sake of gaining knowledge. These scientists seek root causes of machine accidents, social injustice, pollution. There is a weak economic incentive to do these things! It is mostly the values of the people in the society that motivates these activities. Imagine this press release: "RJ Reynolds scientists discover evidence that certain compounds found in cigarette smoke may lead to pulmonary disease. The company has withdrawn its product from the US market and recommends that all foreign distributors do the same, unti a safer product can be developed." Yeah right. That can't happen because the checks and balances in our society don't work that way.

Here's the rub. The perspective of science can be skewed, no matter how idealistic the scientists are, by where the money comes from. A society that pays its scientists from all of its purses, not just one, will see more, know more, understand more. When done well, science can give us checks and balances, preventing companies, politicians, and private citizens from making mistakes. To accomplish that, the scientists must have a widely varied basis of funding, from governemnt and industry... even volunteer scientists are important.

STF

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

From your list, which ones were “commercially viable” at the time they were developed? Yea, some of them were not. The key is that commercially viable tends to be mostly a business thing, where noncommercial development tends to be more goverment or privitely funded in most of the world (I used privitely funded as by nonbusiness interests). And some commercially viable development came out of noncommercial development as a side finding. After all who needs a microwave transmitter in there home?

The point is, long term development may not pay off in our life times, but has made our life better. By not funding long term developments we are in a route to stagnate human development for short term "feel good" gains.

Some of the "feel good" development gains will always happen, but the question will always be how much money should be in short term, and long term. What is being implyed is all money for development will be for short term development.

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

Quote:

cranky108,... long term development may not pay off in our life times

Actually there are very few great inventions that didn't pay off in a human lifetime after the achievement. The computer, penicillin, and interplanetary spacecraft were all invented in the lifetime of my grandfather. I will allow that the nuclear power generated by fusion reactors is at risk of missing the human-lifetime implementation target, but only if it takes another 40 years to come to pass. And even though nobody knows what to do with a Higgs boson yet, it probably won't take long before, maybe, the quantum-computer manufacturers identify an advantage and exploit them too. I purposefully left those things off my little list because there's not been enough time to see them in historical perspective.

Here's another point of view, expressed either by Richard Feynman or Leon Lederman (or perhaps Weinberg) to a US congressional hearing about the SSC in the 90's (and I must paraphrase this from memory, not having Leon's book handy):

Why build the supercollider? Why NOT build it? Why do we have this great country (the United States of America) if we cannot do great things with it? If this country became the greatest in the world because people asked questions, and had the freedom to find the answers, then what happens to our country when we cannot answer the difficult questions we have today? Why am I an american if I cannot do the same things that made america so great?"

I am relatively immune to american patriotism but this one lights a fire.

STF

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

cranky108 actually quite a few of them were commercially viable if not at the time of their invention then very shortly after.

Aeroplanes were being used in combat less than 10 years after the first powered flight (before 1914 as I recall).

Rockets may not have reached the moon until the 1960's but had been used for delivering warheads (from simple arrow heads to explosive charges) & signalling for hundreds of years before that.


I'm glad cranky brought up Aerospace because a lot of advances in that field were government financed one way or the other - NACA/NASA being the obvious example. Some of the stuff was fairly 'blue sky's' but much was pretty much directly applicable.

So I'm tempted to say there's a place for government funding of both blue sky & applied research. Excessive concentration on/elimination of either could be detrimental.

I can't help but wonder at some of the research that gets published though, while it may at times be difficult to tell what will be important in the future or what you might unexpectedly learn from it at least some seems that it's only use was to fill someones requirement of having a thesis for their degree.

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RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

KENAT:...I can't help but wonder at some of the research that gets published though, while it may at times be difficult to tell what will be important in the future or what you might unexpectedly learn from it at least some seems that it's only use was to fill someones requirement of having a thesis for their degree...

While I can't prove that all science is of great value, nor disprove that science is never pointless, often the value is hard for the layman to judge.
Another example will serve: I remember reading about an award presented to the author of papers on the subject of "Computational Origami".

I had a long loud WTF moment when I read that, and ignored the rest of the article. But I judged too soon.

Later I was to hear about computational origami again, and about its application to the synthesis of proteins in medical research for producing drugs and proteins used in various therapies. Proteins fold in torturous ways, and chemically constructing them or isolating the right ones selects the medicine that is effective from the chemically-identical compound that is not. Oh. It just has a cute name. So beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or, in the case of science, the value of the tool can only be measured against the size of the problem it can solve.

It was a privately funded award, BTW. :)

Circling back to the original subject, we can talk more about the layman, especially when the "layman" must be the one making decisions about what can be funded and what should not. The layman we've been talking about is the politician, elected to represent the interest of people. Some would argue also to represent their own personal interests, but leave that for now. The system is theoretically meant to hold these politicians accountable for the results of their choices, and to feed them good information so that they can make good choices. The former has always been under threat. Many people object to others making decisions for them. Understandable, but frankly there are too many decisions to be made in this society for any one person to make the all for himself, unless he wants to live like a caveman. So a democracy, that relies upon its educated population to choose good representatives, also relies upon supplying those citizens with factual information to use when making collective decisions (voting) or individual ones (economic). The accountability to those facts is universal, be they scientific, financial, or ethical.

Lastly, I'd like to point out that the city of Calgary and the neighbouring towns are experiencing EXACTLY this difference between the absence and presence of scientific facts to make good long-term and short-term decisions. And the dangers of ignoring facts. Compare the results of the floods in the main city versus the smaller surrounding ones. The science is there, it seems Calgary was using it, so has Medicine Hat, but other small local governments were NOT USING IT. Numerous other entities in the city and outside it are also making good and bad use of science and facts, and the results are obvious now.

STF

RE: NRC to Focus On Industry Driven, "Commercially Viable" Research

Some development must come from industry, simply because it is so specific to that industry. But on the other side of the coin, that development may help other nonassociated industries who don't have access to the information. Information published as a result of goverment funded development should be available to a larger group of users. This is typically the case in crop testing for farming.

In many cases, and this is my thinking, the development is in the interests of many users and should be available to the many users. However, as in the case of drug manufacturers, there are many end users, but few manufacturers that can develop the product, so the development should not be goverment funded, except in the few cases where it would be too costly for industry to develop.

I'm not sure where my thinking is leading, but a mix of funding privite, and goverment, long and short term is needed. Also needed is funding from special interests with a specific result in mind.

It appears short sighted to have such funding decisions in the hands of such a few people, where universities can disperse the fundings by the decisions of the boards that must maintain a status for the university. One specific project buried in the budget won't kill a university, but bragging rights for a finding will keep its status up. And that what we want is to provide a source of bragging rights in exchange for development of a paper of usful information.

The road that is being described dosen't do that. It appears to head more to pet projects, and money for votes.

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