Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Candy Store

By Keith McDowell

George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With all due respect to Santayana, I submit that a twenty-first century version suitable for those who inhabit the nether world of right-wing extremism should read as follows: those who pay no attention to the past condemn the future. And the easiest version of paying no attention to the past is simply to make one up. Or as Al Pacino said, “I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.”

The best lie is one that sounds plausible, especially if it appeals to baser instincts. Here is one of my favorites: free markets produce innovation, not government planning. Really? In a recent article entitled A Tale of Two Energies, Josiah Neely of the Texas Public Policy Foundation made just that assertion. Fortunately, Robert Jensen presented a masterful refutation of this assertion in an article entitled The Plow and the iPhone: Conservative Fantasies About the Miracles of the Market. 

But sadly, Santayana was right. We seem condemned to repeat the endless cycle of demonstrating that “trickle-down” innovation from accumulated wealth rarely occurs or that “expansionary austerity” – translated as small government – doesn’t enhance the R&D that underpins innovation. Perhaps Friedrich Schiller best described this cyclic conundrum as follows: “Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.” Personally, I prefer the wisdom often found in “rock and roll” lyrics. Billy Preston comes to mind: “Nothin from nothin’ leaves nothin’; you gotta have somethin’, if you want to be with me” And what is that “somethin’?” Who is the me?

The “somethin’” is basic research and knowledge accumulated through scholarly activity founded on the scientific method and proven facts that drive innovation and the innovation ecosystem leading to commercial products, services and other “things” of value including informed governmental decision-making. The “me” you want to be with is global competition in the marketplace. But why choose basic research? For those who have forgotten the past or for those who deign to ignore it, Dr. Vannevar Bush in his seminal 1945 report, Science – The Endless Frontier, said it best in an excerpt from the first paragraph of the report:

New products, new industries, and more jobs require continuous additions to knowledge of laws of nature, and the application of that knowledge to practical purposes. … This essential, new knowledge can be obtained only through basic scientific research.

Dr. Bush understood as have all successful leaders throughout the history of humankind that society through its government must build an innovation ecosystem in order to thrive. And at the core must be government funding. How did Dr. Bush come to these conclusions?

Prior to his report and World War II, basic research was funded mostly by gifts, endowments, foundations, and potentates as part of the job description for academicians. It was conducted by small groups and typically led by a single person, most often a male faculty member. Sometimes, research was a pastime or hobby for dilettantes. A systematic approach to the support of large-scale research did not exist and the flow-down of knowledge leading to innovations was often the province of “garage inventors.” World War II changed all that for American science and for American industry as the efficacy of technological advances and solutions became apparent to everyone, especially with the introduction of nuclear warfare. The need for a structured research and development enterprise to continue and to accelerate the wartime gains, principally for military applications, but also for the health of Americans, became a top priority. President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned Dr. Bush to review the situation and prepare a plan for America. That plan created the superpower we have today.

Even after the passage of sixty-seven years, it is instructive to review some of the main points from the Bush report:

·      The goals of the scientific and technological enterprise are national security, health, and the economy of the United States.
·       “Many of the most important discoveries have come as a result of experiments undertaken with very different purposes in mind.”
·      “The publicly and privately supported colleges, universities, and research institutes are the centers of basic research.”
·      Government should aid in the development of scientific talent, “the real ceiling on our production of scientific knowledge.”
·      “With some notable exceptions, most research in industry and Government involves application of existing scientific knowledge to practical problems.”
·      “The Government is peculiarly fitted to perform certain functions, such as the coordination and support of broad programs on problems of great national importance.”
·      The Government must conduct military research during peacetime directed by a “permanent, independent, civilian-controlled organization” funded by Congress.
·      “In addition, ways should be found to cause the benefits of basic research to reach industries which do not utilize new scientific knowledge.”
·      The Government should form a permanent Science Advisory Board.
·      The Government should form a National Research Foundation to fund basic research.

With respect to trickle-down R&D or trickle-down innovations, Bush said the following:

Industry is generally inhibited by preconceived goals, by its own clearly defined standards, and by the constant pressure of commercial necessity. Satisfactory progress in basic science seldom occurs under conditions prevailing in the normal industrial laboratory.

The Bush report is a marvelous and timeless document that set in motion a government plan and policy that has served America very well. And yes! It’s a government plan that led to our modern innovation system while making full use of the marketplace. And yes, it has been improved and made more relevant through new constructs such as use-driven research as proposed by Donald E. Stokes in his 1997 book Pasteur’s Quadrant and through Congressional studies such as Unlocking Our Future: Towards a New National Science Policy or the more recent National Academy report Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Only a fool would deny the enormous success of our American system. And if you want more proof, read Go Forth And Innovate!

But I’ve saved the best story for my ending. What is “The Candy Store?”

In the 1980s I had the pleasure of serving at one of America’s premier research and development institutions, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). During that decade and even today, the question of “why basic research at the labs” was under debate. For some the assault on basic research was memorialized by the change in name from Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (LASL) to Los Alamos National Laboratory. LANL was consistent with the naming convention for other labs, while LASL and the term “scientific” implied that Los Alamos was somehow better than other labs and the best place to be, a charge of arrogance and cowboy behavior often hurled at Los Alamos personnel to this day.

In the opinion of many this purported behavior and resulting culture grew from having too many personnel spending too much time with sandbox science, a euphemism for basic research. Congress and the federal agencies funding research at national laboratories were loath to fun sandbox science and wanted programmatic funding. But recognizing the importance of keeping the best personnel on board while accepting that some basic research was essential, a compromise was struck through the creation of the Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program. The LDRD program functions as a tax on other programs to create a pool of funds to be used to fund internally worthy research projects chosen by an internal merit review process. The notion is that sandbox science continues at our national laboratories, but in a more directed manner consistent with the various missions of the labs. It has been enormously successful.

Our group at LANL was at the interface of basic and applied research with subsequent advanced technology development and deployment of systems and we benefited from the LDRD program. We well understood the need for targeted basic research and had first hand knowledge of how basic research informs and provides knowledge for subsequent development and innovation. And we jokingly called this fully stocked and replenishing storehouse of basic research or scientific knowledge ready for use by innovators “The Candy Store!”

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