Lookup the Hubble Space Telescope and you will find a lengthy description of its numerous accomplishments in the pure science of astronomy. You won’t find a word about how much money or profit it has generated, though. This billion-dollar piece of equipment will likely never make money directly for private industry, but can anyone argue over this machine's value to science? It probably can’t be measured in dollars.
What could be more amazing than to learn all the steps of the formation of a star? What lies behind the myriad of secrets hidden in particle physics? What exactly is the nature and form of energy that causes a virus to quicken to life?
These are interesting questions – with no current commercial potential. If we wait for the private sector to accomplish this research, we will literally be waiting forever. These things can only be learned through government funding of science.
What was the largest and most successful research project ever undertaken by human kind? That would be the Manhattan Project and its studies on atomic energy. When it was started, yhe Manhattan Project had no possibility of commercial use. Obviously, in hindsight, we can see that the nuclear energy industry is worth many millions of dollars, but when it was started, it was just a huge hole that the federal government poured ridiculous sums of money into. Without the federal government, we wouldn’t have any knowledge of nuclear power.
And then there’s the space program. There is nothing in your life that hasn’t been touched by the technological fallout from the space program. But in 1956, there was no reason to even think about space. Only the Soviet Union was worried about such esoteric knowledge.
These are just two examples of government backed research. Others include geology, life sciences, fluid dynamics, energy, and any other field of study that you can think of. Sometimes science requires that someone spend a great deal of time just looking in a microscope, or a telescope, or at a plant and then spending even more time thinking about what they see. Very often it takes years before this knowledge has any value to you and me other than the wonder of knowing. Sometimes it never gets there.
At present, the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator in Cern, Switzerland, is the most expensive science experiment on earth. These people are looking into the nature of time and space. There is no thought of commercial potential in their work. Without governmental support, this wouldn’t be happening. Possible fallout from this work is unknowable – until it happens.
Just a short list of things that you and I would not have if it weren’t for governmental research laboratories:
Computers (the space program), internet (DARPA), Teflon (the space program), GPS (the space program), cell phones (DARPA), microwave ovens (World War II radar), flat screen monitors (DARPA developed LCD’s), knowledge of earthquakes and volcanoes (USGS), solar panels (the space program), weather forecasting (Dept. of Agriculture), satellite television, and hand held video cameras (both from space). In fact, I would challenge you to name anything in your life that hasn’t been touched in a positive fashion by government-backed research.
Is there an occasional study that seems ridiculous? Of course, but who knows what else we might learn from studying the mating habits of the fruit fly? Maybe the high speed macroscopic camera developed for the study can be used in other applications.
Is the food you eat safe? Thank the FDA. Is the water you drink clean? Thank the EPA. Is your coat warm in the winter? Thank the U.S. Army. Did your car start this morning? Thank the USGS. Are you reading this article? Thank DARPA.
Anyone who wants to put a stop to this amazing and never ending font of knowledge has no idea what they are putting a stop to. If only one in one thousand research projects have paid commercial dividends, then government research is well worth the expense.
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