Rescuing the Economy – Proposal #3

My friend PN remarked, “Brian, what do astronomers get paid to do? I mean, what is the value of astronomy?” PN takes his Celeston with him when he leaves the light pollution of the “big city”. I remember wondering in the moment why he didn’t see the value of astronomy. He did in fact, but he was making a point that astronomy, and many fields of science had no immediate payoff, and therefore little allure for public funders and philanthropists. Look at the gloomy future for NASA to see that this concern is real.

I am afraid that many fields of science may lose significant funding and attention in the future, whether I like it or not – probably including astronomy. But not all fields of science are threatened like astronomy might be. Science that contributes to medical advances will flourish in the future. I think that with significant investment in lieu of the relatively more modest investment today, certain fields of science can be propelled so far forward so fast that they will radically reshape national economies such as our own and potentially improve the lives of everyone on the planet in a matter of a couple of years. But it’s a long shot.

I have been blogging on rescuing the US economy:

  • My Proposal #1 that predicts future medical consumption will be what saves the future US economy;
  • My Proposal #2 for more Federal investment in engineering projects by the SBIR;
  • A “China Playbook” of Seven Eco-Pillars that all require redefinition for the future.

The repair and modernization of the US economy is a difficult road for Congress to navigate. When was the last time your community added a stoplight before the tragic car wreck? Well, stand by for us all to trip and fall on the global stage tragically before Congress will act correctly.

So, what is the “long shot” that might overcome the tragic “trip and fall”? There must be a long shot with a high risk of failure, but potentially enormous returns. Scientific discovery changes the way we see the world, the problems in the world, and the solutions to those problems. My friend wasn’t looking at it from quite that perspective, but I was beginning to. My proposal – my long shot:

Invest $250 Billion in scientific research for a cure for cancer – all cancers – in five years.

My previous post that proposed a sharp increase in SBIR investment in engineering solutions to practical problems noted a structural error in public policy that has spurred a misapplication of talent in this country: Scientists in the US are “stooping” to a mission of invention and innovation in lieu of discovery. They do this today because invention and innovation or applied science receives significant funding from multiple sources, and because discovery or pure science receives far less funding, and because their Ph.D. credential beats out the credentials of most engineers who might do better invention and innovation. Where the previous proposal made a case for funding more invention and innovation by engineers instead of scientists, this post expands on the value of scientific discovery and the need to fund it and the essential role for scientists to pursue it.

Discovery is the “long shot”. Remember Rumsfeld’s muttering about “things you know you know”? Well, Discovery is all about the things you don’t know. There is undeniable value in things you don’t know. But this value is undeterminable, and therefore its cost is unjustifiable when things get tough. Scientists do discovery best – this is their big potential value contribution in our economy, and public policy today no longer encourages it very well. A little bit of Discovery spurs a disproportionately larger wave of invention and innovation – always.

The mission to the moon was a mission of discovery – it gave birth to the computer chip – and to a host of other commercializable inventions and innovations that have contributed remarkably to our economy.

The decoding of the human genome was a mission of discovery – it gave birth to the hard disk drive – and to a host of other commercializable inventions and innovations that have contributed remarkably to our economy. The hard disk drive? Yes – the problem was, “How do you store the human genome once you know it?” The answer was the hard disk drive – with microminiature magnetic molecules that store a one or zero – or “fairy dust” as coined by an IBM physicist…  And now, many of us have our offices littered by used disk drives mechanisms and boxes full of portable hard drives.

What is the next big discovery?  See this previous post on The Next Big Thing – but these things are really inventions and innovations, and not discoveries. So, what is the next big discovery that will drive large portions of our future economy? My own guess is a pico-machine that defeats or destroys cancer cells – or any other specific cell they are built for – by seeking them out in the body, attaching to them and rendering them harmless. Maybe this pico-machine is really a virus or a gene, but the point is that for all intents and purposes it is a molecule-sized machine that has a physical structure and a physical mechanism and a programmable behavior to accomplish its task.

These pico-machines will be the brain-children of scientists, and not engineers. Who will fund this pure science? Who will fund a $250 Billion cure for all cancers and potentially many other diseases – and other unimaginable applications? Congress? On the present course, I doubt it… It’s the “long shot”, and who in Congress is brave enough to invest large amounts of public funds today when times are tough in something their constituents might call science fiction?

Today, the US government tends to toss token amounts of money at quantifiable, low-risk problems. This is a sure bet strung out over as long a period of time as possible. I think that this strategy today yields relatively small returns. I have heard more than one scientific researcher remark in frustration, “I invest so many hours preparing so many proposals for such small amounts of money for such limited scopes of work…”

My proposal – one more time:

Invest $250 Billion in scientific research for a cure for cancer – all cancers – in five years.

And then, how about curing Alzheimer’s Disease… Or regrowing the retina of the eye to cure macular degeneration and blindness, or regenerating a failed pancreas to cure diabetes, or – well, there is a long list of discoveries waiting, and waiting, and waiting…

In case you aren’t looking at the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, $250 Billion amounts to about two years of the cost of those wars… I would rather bet some of my tax dollars on the “long shot”, wouldn’t you?

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One Response to “Rescuing the Economy – Proposal #3”

  1. mikesoper Says:

    I see a book emerging . . .

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