Despite thinking I was savvy about politics and the ways of Washington, what a neophyte I am. In my Science and Technology Policy cornerstone class, we’re reviewing the federal budget, specifically as it relates to R&D. First eye opener for me – ‘technology’ means something a lot bigger than Silicon Valley’s self-centric view. While IT elitists give the occassional nod to biotech, in the government world, technology encompasses agriculture and military arsenals. Science and technology R&D reaches aerospace, energy, the environment, the weather and climate change, health and biomedics, aviation, cyber security, solar, the US geological survey, nanotechnology and networking and IT and more. And that’s BEFORE the Dept of Defense, whose budget is of course completely separate from the Dept of Homeland Security [aren’t they trying to achieve the same goal?]. Many, many billions are spent annually on gov’t funded R&D, most of it ‘mission specific’ in support of the particular agency’s reason for being. Yet my class readings warn of inadequate investment in pure research, whose discoveries can be hard to quantify and who may not yield their maximum value for years. For example, GPS, the World Wide Web, artificial hearts, statin drugs … all derived out of government R&D projects implemented years earlier. If industry only funds what will have private payback for the funders, then, the argument goes, it is government’s role to continue pure research. No proof, nothing measurable, but probabilities. I guess the future of science relies on a present leap of faith. Of course then there’s the politics of it all…
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