“Industrial research” is an oxymoron. Private industry doesn’t do research. They say that they do. The government says that they do. But the truth is that they don’t; and for a good reason. Research – real research – doesn’t turn a profit and the raison d-etre of industry is to generate a profit.
The explanation lies in the phrase, real research. What industry does in their so-called “research labs” is not real research, it is product development. Product development pays. In fact, it is the lifeblood of industry. A corporation must have new products to entice consumers away from their competitors. Corporations that don’t develop new products are weeded out by economic darwinism.
So what is real research? It is the discovery of basic knowledge, as opposed to the design of a specific product.
Is research important? Hell, yes! We have to understand organic chemistry and physiology to cure diseases; understand biology and demography to feed our growing population; understand ecology and meteorology to keep the earth habitable; understand astrophysics and astronomy to find new worlds; and so forth.
Science has rescued us from living in caves, surviving on what we can hunt with clubs, and dying before we reach the age of thirty. Science has let the earth sustain more than a few million people. Science keeps our lives from being short, nasty, and brutish.
If physics and chemistry and math are needed to build a refrigerator, and more advanced physics, chemistry, and math are needed to build a more advanced refrigerator, why doesn’t a company which builds refrigerators have laboratories to conduct research in physics, chemistry, and math?
Because it wouldn’t pay them to do it.
First, the payoff for basic knowledge is too long delayed.
For example, almost any modern technological development requires a branch of mathematics called calculus. Calculus has been used to develop countless trillions of dollars of profitable products for the modern world. But calculus was developed in the 1600s. If a private company in Renaissance England had funded the development of calculus, they would never have reaped the profit from it and would have gone bankrupt long ago.
Second, and more important, there is not a one-to-one relationship between research results and products.
Any single product requires knowledge from many different scientific theories. Producing the bottle of Coca-Cola sitting on my desk required organic chemistry, biology, and botany. The machines that were necessary to bottle it in large quantities required physics, metallurgy, chemistry, and mathematics. If the Coca-Cola company had to pay for all the research results that they used to produce that bottle of pop, they would have been bankrupt before they started.
But they didn’t have to. We, and our fore-bearers, paid for it, both directly and indirectly by paying for a government, society, and culture that supported legions of scientists.
The public pays for science because, every time scientific knowledge improves, life improves. A new scientific theory developed today will be used to develop hundreds of thousands of new products in the future. We will use some of these products in our lifetime; some of them will be developed for our great-great-grandchildren.
The mistake that people often make is that they think that one scientific advance is used to produce one product. There are countless myths and legends about the lone inventor – Thomas Edison, Edwin Land, Bill Lear, or Bill Gates – getting a single new idea and making a product worth millions. Those romantic stories ignore all the rest of the science that was necessary to make the lightbulb, Polaroid camera, Learjet, or personal computer. None of those products would have been possible without a millenium of scientific development first.
No product will ever make enough money to pay for all the research that was required to develop it.
But the myth that one scientific result is all that is required for one product is dangerously attractive to people who don’t want to pay for scientific research any more, because it implies that corporations will fund all the research necessary to develop new products. And it implies that if corporations don’t want to pay for research, then that research is esoteric and unnecessary.
This simple model is a prescription for the stagnation of corporations and a failed economy.
There is a reason why those countries which have a strong culture of scientific research are good places to live today and those countries which do not, are not.
We all have to support science so that corporations can do what they are supposed to do: not conduct research, but develop new products for our use.
Anyone who claims that we can have the benefits of a modern economy without funding basic research is blowing smoke at you. Either they are genuinely ignorant of the fundamental role of science in our lives or they have a secret agenda that will benefit themselves at a devastating cost to you.