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To celebrate the beginning of the twenties, Ferrebeekeeper featured a wish-list article which requested (1) democratic reforms, and (2) more money for scientific research.  Today we are following up on the second part of that post with a somewhat dispiriting report from the boringly named National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (a federal statistical agency within the National Science Foundation).   As you might imagine, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics has compiled a list of statistics concerning the state of science and engineering in the USA (it is their mission to present such a report to Congress every two years).

The report concentrates on 2017, when the United States spent $548 billion on research and development–more than any other nation! However the report also analyzes larger R&D trends among all nations over time–which makes our relative decline more apparent.  In 2000, nearly 40% of the worldwide R&D budget was spent here in America. By 2017, the total world R&D budget was 2 trillion dollars, which means the American share is down to (approximately) 25%.

You would probably guess that a lot of the new worldwide R&D budget is Chinese, and that is correct.  The report’s authors speculate that by 2019 (which was too recent for the statisticians to have comprehensive numbers) the Chinese R&D budget actually surpassed the American research budget.  I guess we will see.  China tends to spend more money on applied research, whereas we are still world leaders in blue-sky research, but they are catching up everywhere.

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More and more national wealth is being pointlessly hoarded by robber barons.  Do these plutocrats imagine they will live forever? Why not spend their ill-gotten lucre on developing robot workers, immortality potions, and alligator soldiers to guard them against popular insurrection?  Even if the prospect of astonishing & miraculous innovations don’t beguile the Davos class, you would think the prospect of Chinese supremacy in tomorrow’s marketplace and battlefield would get them to spend more money on the lab.   In the lack of business/private leadership (which, frankly, hasn’t been leading America to anywhere other than the underworld anyway) the solution is obvious.  Write to your elected officials and demand more money go to scientific research.  The future is on the line (and I wouldn’t mind some immortality potions and omniscient robot servants, even if the 1% don’t care for such things).

 

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It is the 50 year anniversary of the Apollo moon landing!  It is a glorious anniversary: the moon landing was surely one of humankind’s proudest moments to date! Human beings left the Earth and walked upon the surface of a different world and returned to tell the tale! Yet it is a bittersweet anniversary too.  Today we are too politically paralyzed, too indebted, and too subservient to world-bestriding monopolies to accomplish anything similarly stirring.  It is unlikely we could even repeat the same feat! The president talks of returning to the moon by 2024, but anybody following the affairs of NASA recognizes that this is not going to happen (even assuming the current administration remains in place to push these particular space priorities).

In 1967, the Apollo program, by itself, was taking 4 percent of total government spending.  That was an era when the USA’s GDP represented 38% of the total world economic output (it is around 24% today).  There are lots of cranks and bumpkins who grouse about such outlays, but that money was spent here on Earth and it yielded rewards far beyond the moon landing itself.  The communications, materials, and technology innovations which have changed so many aspects of life largely flowed out of the space program (and its shadowy military sibling programs).

Perhaps you are wondering why this is not a nostalgic & triumphalist post about an epochal human accomplishment.  Maybe you are also perplexed about why I am writing about budgets and GDP instead of, you know, about landing human beings on the moon (although there has not been a human on the moon during my lifetime).

This is not just an anniversary post, it is also a polemical post about current policy failures. We are not investing any such vast outlays in long-term, open-ended research today.  It is going to come back to haunt us in a future of reduced prospects and lackluster breakthroughs Fifty years hence, are we going to look back on 2019 and enthuse about an Instagram filter, or slight improvements in immunotherapy, or blockchain technology?

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Wikipedia blandly notes ” blue-sky projects are politically and commercially unpopular and tend to lose funding to more reliably profitable or practical research.” The real genius of the moon-landing was that the end result was so spectacular and stupendous that it upended this conventional wisdom.  U.S. politicians of the sixties had the genius to perceive that the Apollo program could bring us together, boost our national prestige, bankrupt the Russians, and yield enormous technological and scientific rewards all at the same time.

In 1969, it must have seemed like the beginning of a golden age of space exploration.  After our heroic moon conquest we would build nuclear reactors on the moon and then create space cities in domed craters.  There would be giant lunar rail guns, torus space stations, spaceplanes, and Mars missions (and my floating Venutian city).  Instead we have the moldering hulk which is the International Space Station and some worn out space planes in museums.  Our vision and our willpower faded as our greed grew greater.

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But it is never too late! Space is still out there, bigger than ever. The moon landing showed that the impossible is possible if we work together.  That’s still true too and it is something we should all think hard about as we look up at the night sky and make plans for what to do next.

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