Research: Good Investment ?

Gregory R. Harriman gregoryh at bcm.tmc.edu
Thu Dec 21 13:21:43 EST 1995


In article <4bbl9m$adq at decaxp.harvard.edu>, robison at lipid.harvard.edu
(Keith Robison) wrote:

: : Berezin wrote:
: 
: : Nonetheless, I would like to take an issue with what you
: : say above in general terms, that is
: :    
: : (*)  " ...  basic scientific research ... yields enormous
: :         return on inverstment ..... "
: 
: : This statement (in various forms) rather popular now.
: : In a recent article somebody even "calculated" such a return
: : at 28 % annual (!).  But at least as far as fundamental 
: : physical, chemical and much of engineering research is
: : concerned the (*) is unfortunately a (largely) wishful 
: : thinking.
: 
: : The question: 
: 
: : If the return is so high why (almost) all major corporations
: : pull out of R&D, or at best keep them at bay ? Reports are
: : that even such giants as Bells, AT&T, Dupont, IBM downsizing
: : their research sectors. 
: 
: Because they can't look past 1 year's balance sheet?  Because
: the returns in basic research often accrue to society as a whole
: rather than the corporate sponsor?
: 
: : In short, for claim (*) to be trustable (including biomedical
: : research), we need a strong evidence that it is indeed endorsed 
: : by business community, and not just by words but by dollars.
: : Perhaps Bill Gates should be consulted on this matter.
: 
: Consider Bell Labs.  Among other things, they invented (AFAIK)
: the laser and the transistor.  I don't have a copy handy,
: but how much credit does Mr. Gates give Bell Labs in his book,
: which can be read using those two inventions (via CD-RO), using
: software written in Bell Labs' C programming language?
: 
: That's why it's called "basic" research.  That's why the short-sighted
: U.S. corporations are getting out of it: Basic research tends to 
: benefit society as a whole rather than specific individuals identifiable
: in advance, and that's what makes it a reasonable purview of
: the government.
 

     One only hopes that Berezin can learn from the points made by
Robison.  Berezin's specious argument suggest a misunderstanding of a
simple concept.  The reason corporations don't generally fund basic
research is because, as Robison points out, this would be unlikely to
benefit the company directly.  Certainily, that is true in the short
term.  Consequently, whatever corporations are doing vis-a-vis research
activities (number of PhDs or whatever) is not germane to the issue of the
value of basic research to society as a whole and to whether "basic" as
opposed to "applied" research is providing tangible benefits.

Greg Harriman



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