In Op-Ed, Eric Schmidt Argues for Government Role in Basic Research

"While investing in basic research typically doesn’t make sense for a business, it has been a winning strategy for our nation."

May 6 2017, 9:18pm

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In the manic backwardness of right-wing politics circa 2017, government simply has no role in The Market that isn't by default contraindicated. Public intervention can only fuck things up, whether the thing in question is health care, energy, or even seemingly obvious government functions like policing and prisons. The free market only works when it's ludicrously free.

You can find this notion mirrored in the more libertarian encampments of Silicon Valley. See: Peter Thiel. It's deeply ingrained in startup culture, arguably.

In Washington Post op-ed this weekend, Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Broad Institute president Eric Lander make the case for public investment in public research as neccessary fuel for the United States' so-called "Miracle Machine." Generally, this refers to the public-private symbiosis at the heart of the US technological innovation boom—and associated economic growth—that kickstarted around the close of WWII.

Basically, the US government poured/pours money into basic research—research that seeks fundamental knowledge about the world rather than practical or applied knowledge—while the private sector harnessed/harnesses the results to make things that people would want to use and-or buy. Averaged out over the past 60 years, that basic research investment roughly translates to one penny of every dollar in the federal budget.

"The Miracle Machine has transformed the way we live and work, strengthened national defense and revolutionized medicine," Schmidt and Landers write. "It has birthed entire industries—organized around computers, biotechnology, energy and communications—creating millions of jobs. It's the reason the United States is the global hub for the technologies of the future: self-driving cars, genome editing, artificial intelligence, cancer immunotherapy, quantum computers and more."

Basic research just doesn't make a whole lot of sense for private companies to invest in. The rewards are downstream and often unpredictable.

"Building powerful tools without worrying about precisely how they'll be used has also turned out to be a great public investment strategy," they write. "Fundamental physics studies, funded by public investment, gave us high-energy particle accelerators, which are now a mainstay in pharmaceutical drug development, and atomic clocks, which enable the Global Positioning System that guides travelers to their destinations."

Why this matters now is obvious, but it's worth keeping in mind as we're told again and again that government is the problem.