Saturday, July 27, 2013

Research funding, spinoffs, and "getting yours"

Spin offs. Among the people who have paid attention to our space program, "spin offs" is fairly large talking point. But I don't generally feel like the population as a whole knows much about them.

A Spin off is a technology, product set, or applicable knowledge that came out of the space program either as a side effect, or as a direct technological advancement. If you start looking into this- from radial tires and highway grooving to medical knowedge, telemetry, and treatement- from prosthetics to household appliances- almost no area of "middle class" life is untouched by the benefits of spin offs.

Few people realize the level of impact that the mass of spin offs have had on the United States. But many people are aware of the funding.

A common, almost "default" argument of many fiscal conservatives and libertarians is that government funded private research is bad- if the company gets intellectual property or an ability to make a profit off of the research. This is generally couched in terms that can be boiled down to "it's my tax money and I didn't get nothin, someone else made a profit!"

I'm going to argue that "didn't get nothin" is completely inaccurate.

This topic came up in a discussion of "global warming" and pollution. I am of the opinion that the latter is a much more important human issue than the variable maybes of the former.

I was presented with a set of options to reduce pollution based on getting rid of the internal combustion engine. What I was presented with was:

1: Supporting stronger aircare regulations.

2: reducing the number of freeways

3: Higher taxes on automobile and related transportation.

4: increased mileage requirements.

Note, specifically, that my goal is to GET RID of the IC engine. None of these solutions actually address that. All of the presented universe of "possible" solutions rely on government restriction or money gathering as a restrictive tax on use.

I have another answer, which I presented. Research.

The response was to suggest "bounty prizes" for specific targeted goals. I don't really think that's an option.  I like the bounties and prize money, but it doesn't have the same impact as the type of funding and results of the 40s through the 60s.

In a bounty system, you have a direct target and less opportunity to make use of spin offs. You also have to fund the research in the hopes of winning the bounty (which isn't really that high in any of the cases I've seen)

What we had at one point- what people complain about as in the opening lines of this essay- was essentially "free money if you have an idea or a lab."

Yeah, there were some paperwork requirements and tracking issues, pork barrels and corporate pushiness. But, it boiled down to "free money if you have an idea or lab- and the oomph to do some paperwork and make a case"

What's the difference? ZERO RISK RESEARCH. You didn't have to justify- to your board, your wife, or your kids' dinners- spending 75% of your annual profits on a research project. You didn't have to shut down a pension plan to do research funding. You didn't have to (and in many cases were not PERMITTED to) outsource a lab to cut costs.

Zero. Risk. Research. With functionally unlimited amounts of money available.

What did we get out of it? Contrary to the common argument that companies made profit off the government and we got nothing- we got spin offs. And jobs, pensions, growth in income, technology, overall standard of living, and national wealth like nothing history has ever seen.

We went through an era of almost complete technological dominance and increasing wealth.

Yeah, private individuals got patents, corporate "entities" got patents, people and companies made money off of the research. And we got...


(yes, we had some downsides, but they are identifiable and manageable.)

My answer to the pollution problem? Make the internal combustion engine economically stupid.

How? I don't know. I suggest we throw TRUCKLOADS of money into research and see what happens. Let's do a bailout on our technological dominance instead of banks.

Will you "get yours"? probably. The economic spin off effects are pretty amazing.