> 5 questions for Tony Mills on public science funding After war II to present - Webgeak

5 questions for Tony Mills on public science funding After war II to present

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Tony is the director of the R Street Institute’s science policy program. He was previously the editor of RealClearPolitics. He and Mark Mills recently published a superb article within the New Atlantis titled “The Science Before the War”.

Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation. you'll read our full discussion here. you'll also subscribe my podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or download the podcast on Ricochet.

Pethokoukis: Your essay describes America’s R&D efforts during war II. and through this pandemic, there’s tons of interest in initiating a replacement “Manhattan Project” to develop therapeutics and a vaccine as quickly as possible. is that this war II analogy a helpful one for current times?

Mills: In one sense, yes. war II was the primary time that the federal became a large-scale investor and a producer of the research project. war II research efforts were the origin of “big science”  for example setting a crucial precedent that the Apollo program and other large-scale government efforts in research project would follow.

But there's a more problematic way that this trope gets used, and that’s the thought that the govt can “order up” knowledge domain and direct it to unravel practical problems. during a certain sense, the govt clearly can and has done that. But we'd like to seem at the sooner history and recognize the scientific discoveries that made those more practically-oriented research projects possible.

One reason those efforts were successful is that they weren’t just ranging from nothing. They were drawing upon what was already a reasonably large reservoir of the knowledge domain, right?

That’s right. within the mid-century, the view that was promoted by Bush FDR’s science advisor was that basic science was needed because of the quite reservoir for a technological invention. it's really striking that the three iconic WWII-era inventions the atomic bomb, the pc, and radar each trusted highly theoretical discoveries, going back to the 1800s or farther.

For instance, George Boole’s theoretical add the 1840s trying to explain the “mathematics of the human intellect” might be applied to relay circuits, which Shannon found out almost 100 years later. That laid the inspiration for contemporary digital computing. Different people tried to develop computing machines going back a few years. But the key insight wasn’t driven by any plan to develop something practical.

There’s an identical story with radar. You can’t develop the technique for tracking objects using radio waves unless you recognize these radio waves exist. The atomic bomb is similar: You can’t split the atom unless you recognize that there are atoms.

I think we’ve quite lost our sense of how foundational basic scientific discoveries are often. We tend to consider basic science as just long-term research. But it really exposes a broader path.

Bringing this back to coronavirus, modern virology work uses gene sequencing to develop vaccines. But we had to get the gene first for this to be possible.

What was Vannevar Bush’s vision for what government-funded science would appear as if after the war?

Bush believed that the govt was ready to do these incredible technological feats in wartime due to a robust backlog of scientific discovery. He proposed that the govt stimulate research project while allowing scientists to line their own research agendas instead of pursuing practical objectives.

The alternative proposal at the time maintained that the govt should steer this money to practical objectives. the top results of this debate were the creation of the National Science Foundation. But by the time NSF was created, there have been a number of other federal agencies were spending far more on applied research and development instead of basic science. So Bush didn’t quite get what he hoped for, and we’ve moved even beyond his vision nowadays.

So what kind of research project does the govt do, and who is doing it? and the way would you describe the character of that research?

Federal agencies fund basic applied research and merchandise development research. the overall trend is toward more applied research and development. The private sector has appropriated the bulk of R&D and therefore the government’s R&D portfolio features a growing emphasis on application.

One of the teachings of war II is that this could be a cause for a few worry. If you check out the technological development within the post-war period, I feel it had been a minimum of partly the results of tons of basic research.

And the federal is not any longer the most important single source of funding even for basic research it only provides about 40 per cent of overall US spending.

How much should we be spending on R&D?

I don’t think there’s any atomic number. It’s more about the downward trends over time, also as other causes for concern. Scientific organizations say that they don’t have enough money, as an example. And there are other indicators that our progress in science is slowing down. tons of parents are worried that there’s a stagnation happening in physics, and therefore the situation within the life sciences isn't all that different. and lots of of the key breakthroughs in these areas happened at a time when there was substantially more federal support.

If you check out of these trends together, you see that we’re not getting the maximum amount out of research project as we want to, and we’re not putting the maximum amount in. this might partly explain a number of the productivity problems we've generally when it involves innovation.
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