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Blue Skies

Many people think our comfortable standard of living in the western world is a result of efficient commerce and the capitalist system working properly. I guess that’s part of the reason but I think it is far from the whole truth. In reality I think that our success is mainly a result of science and technology, mostly driven by non-commercial processes, and that the capitalist system has simply exploited these advances for it’s own benefit.

As I said, there is a fair case to say that free markets and capitalism has resulted in a far better utilisation of those benefits than a more central system (such as government control) might have done, but that is only a secondary factor to the original sci-tech itself.

So it might seem that the best outcomes could result from a synergy between sci-tech and business, which is the currently popular model in many countries, including New Zealand. Again, there is an element of truth in this, but I think there is one major error inherent in most implementations of this model. The error is that sci-tech is just seen as a way to feed business what it needs. Business is always the senior partner in the system and it has the most control. I think this is wrong.

In most cases the greatest advances in science have come from non-commercial research. Sometimes research which is done just for the search for knowledge rather than any “practical” purpose is known as blue skies research and it is often controversial. But it is almost inevitably how really significant progress is made. If we allow business to tell science what it needs we will inevitably lose the really big discoveries. Who would have paid Einstein to research something as esoteric and impractical as relativity, for example? What commercial use could it possibly have?

So there are two points here. First, the mere acquisition of knowledge should be sufficient justification for doing research. There should be no need to justify a scientific study with practical outcomes. Second, even if you do insist on practical outcomes there is no way of telling where even the most theoretical knowledge will lead. Who would have known that a highly mathematical theoretical examination of the quantum world would have lead to all of our modern electronics?

If commercial justification was necessary for research we wouldn’t have GPS because we wouldn’t have relativity, and we wouldn’t have computers without quantum physics. Of course, these are just two examples of the many practical outcomes of the two most foundational theories of modern physics.

A final point which should be made too is that many commercial scientific advances are based on earlier work with less obvious commercial purpose which often come from universities and other non-commercial organisations. The university does the basic research which might initially have no obvious purpose, and that is used as a basis for more practical discoveries later.

So contrary to many people’s ideology, it is science which leads and that is only followed by commerce. The intermediate between these is usually technology and that might or might not benefit from a commercial focus.

Two of the great technologist from about a century ago, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, both made incredible contributions to electrical engineering but one was more commercially motivated (Edison) and the other more a pure technician. And Alan Turing probably made more contributions to the science of computing than anyone else but got no real commercial benefit from his work. Many other examples exist of progress made by pure scientists working on “pet projects” such as Maxwell, Hertz, and Faraday.

In summary, I would say the “blue skies” research is the most important and should be given the greatest resourcing. There’s nothing wrong with research which has a commercial focus as well but that should be seen in context: as something which isn’t going to really result in the big changes – the sort of changes which have given us the lifestyle we enjoy today. That almost inevitably has come from blue skies research and pet projects!

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