Research: Good Investment ?

Keith Robison robison at
Thu Dec 21 07:52:06 EST 1995

Alexander Berezin (berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA) wrote:

: On Wed, 20 Dec 1995, David J. States wrote:

: > While I can appreciate that a tremendous amount of thought
: > has gone into how proposals should be reviewed and available
: > funding allocated, let us not loose sight of the real issue:
: > basic scientific research is an essential function of government

: > that has yielded enormous return on investment; more money

: > needs to go into research at all levels.

: In this poster your discuss biomedical research - perhaps
: you are right and it (biomedical research) does indeed bring
: the yield you are talking about below.

: 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.

Keith Robison
Harvard University
Department of Cellular and Developmental Biology
Department of Genetics / HHMI

robison at 

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