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Is fundamental scientific research possible in an Objectivist society?

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In another "forum", I recently suggested the privatization of scientific research, and was immediately confronted with the argument that private industry would never seek answers to the most fundamental questions of the universe due to the complexity, cost, and the lack of any short-term profitability. Here is a sample reply:

Private industry needs returns on investments that can be measured in years. There's nothing wrong with that, people want to make money on their investment. Basic research, however, is absolutely critical to long-term scientific advancement. Those big, expensive particle accelerators that open up the secrets of the universe will never be built by private industry, because there's almost zero chance of any meaningful financially-rewarding application. And yet, in the timeline of decades or perhaps even centuries, basic physics research may open up technologies we can't really imagine now.

Unless you turn it all over to the private sector, in which case it won't be Americans landing on Alpha Centauri or getting instantaneously transported from the Moon to Mars. Americans will be the people cleaning the ashtrays and vacuuming the floors.

To very loosely paraphrase Asimov, never let your ideology prevent you from doing what's right.

At face value this seems like a valid argument.

Say that it is 1900, and Planck has just quantized energy. As the reader, you are omniscient, and know that it will take man a minimum of 200 years to build on this understanding, until suddenly realizing (without any prenotion) a way to utilize zero-point energy as a free and practically unlimited supply of fuel. Let's also assume that this minimum time frame is only possible if the government taxes everyone heavily and puts all of the taxes toward building larger and larger colliders to understand more and more. How would an Objectivist society ever move toward and reach this breakthrough?

Edited by brian0918

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In another "forum", I recently suggested the privatization of scientific research, and was immediately confronted with the argument that private industry would never seek answers to the most fundamental questions of the universe due to the complexity, cost, and the lack of any short-term profitability. Here is a sample reply:

At face value this seems like a valid argument.

Say that it is 1900, and Planck has just quantized energy. As the reader, you are omniscient, and know that it will take man a minimum of 200 years to build on this understanding, until suddenly realizing (without any prenotion) a way to utilize zero-point energy as a free and practically unlimited supply of fuel. Let's also assume that this minimum time frame is only possible if the government taxes everyone heavily and puts all of the taxes toward building larger and larger colliders to understand more and more. How would an Objectivist society ever move toward and reach this breakthrough?

Hypothetical situations are so awesome.

Can you give an actual example of a technology that needs two centuries of development, without providing any kind of benefit before that time? Obviously no one would invest in this particular technology. But then, it's absurd to presuppose that anything exists that is remotely like that, so I do not see why this is a valid criticism of a Capitalist society. If you can give a real example, this might be worth discussing, but otherwise it's just a pointless discussion.

Another thing is that we are not omniscient, and you cannot use that as a standard to say that mankind is somehow worse off because we didn't do something that had no likelihood of actually being a good investment.

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I think private financing of basic science is possible.

Two points:

1) The person you quoted wrote: "Basic research, however, is absolutely critical to long-term scientific advancement." If this is true, and no other source of funding is available (i.e.. from the government), then industry and/or other private donors will have to fund it. If they are unwilling to fund it, then the premise is wrong.

2) Aside from industry, another source of funding is rich philanthropists. I suspect that quite a bit of funding for basic science could be obtained from this venue.....

In another "forum", I recently suggested the privatization of scientific research, and was immediately confronted with the argument that private industry would never seek answers to the most fundamental questions of the universe due to the complexity, cost, and the lack of any short-term profitability. Here is a sample reply:

At face value this seems like a valid argument.

Say that it is 1900, and Planck has just quantized energy. As the reader, you are omniscient, and know that it will take man a minimum of 200 years to build on this understanding, until suddenly realizing (without any prenotion) a way to utilize zero-point energy as a free and practically unlimited supply of fuel. Let's also assume that this minimum time frame is only possible if the government taxes everyone heavily and puts all of the taxes toward building larger and larger colliders to understand more and more. How would an Objectivist society ever move toward and reach this breakthrough?

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It is very possible for fundamental science to advance through capitalistic means. Investors will want to invest in it to make money off new technology that works off this new knowledge, technology that won't take long to appear thanks to the wonders of modern technology like computers.

In a related note I am currently in the planning stage of a science fiction series where science has advanced, through capitalistic means, to the level of faster than light travel (and please don't comment on whether or not that is possible; that discussion belongs in another thread, not here). I think that it is quite possible for science fiction level technology (with the exceptions of ones based on pseudo-science) to arise in a capitalistic society and I intend to show that with my series.

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But then, it's absurd to presuppose that anything exists that is remotely like that, so I do not see why this is a valid criticism of a Capitalist society. If you can give a real example, this might be worth discussing, but otherwise it's just a pointless discussion.

Atlas Shrugged suggests a technology requiring changes in fundamental understanding that only one brilliant mind is capable of - in other words, given the lack of that unique Einsteinian mind, it would require a multitude of fundamental research to uncover it as a possibility, research that you say "no one would invest in".

you cannot use that as a standard to say that mankind is somehow worse off

This is where you (and potentially I) differ from those with whom you are arguing. They are arguing for the pursuit of scientific knowledge for the sake of understanding, where as you are arguing only for the pursuit of satisfying the demands of mankind. This is why they claim a privatized scientific society would never reach these fundamental understandings, because the goals are different.

Hypothetical situations are so awesome.

Can you give an actual example of a technology that needs two centuries of development, without providing any kind of benefit before that time?

A few examples currently of interest: finding evidence for the Higgs boson, and finding evidence for gravity waves. For the former, nothing of applicable purpose is known; such evidence serves only to strengthen or weaken the Standard Model. For the latter, an applicable purpose may be possible, but would be centuries off.

Wormholes are another example. Full of potential at the theoretical level, but still centuries off. Can you envision companies ever investing in wormhole research given that any such research will not produce a profit for several centuries and only after pumping in trillions of dollars?

Edited by brian0918

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I think private financing of basic science is possible.

Two points:

1) The person you quoted wrote: "Basic research, however, is absolutely critical to long-term scientific advancement." If this is true, and no other source of funding is available (i.e.. from the government), then industry and/or other private donors will have to fund it. If they are unwilling to fund it, then the premise is wrong.

As scientific understanding advances, it moves into obscurity and inapplicability. This is their point. It can take decades of research that has no applicable purposes (such as all the particle accelerator research) before a discovery leads to an applicable purpose. The goal of such scientists is not to find an applicable purpose, but simply to advance scientific understanding. Whether or not the understanding reaches any useful purpose is of no concern to them; given the government funding, they could go on for centuries and find no profitable use for their new understanding.

2) Aside from industry, another source of funding is rich philanthropists. I suspect that quite a bit of funding for basic science could be obtained from this venue.....

Would rich philanthropists exist in an Objectivist society, and would they be willing to hand over money for several decades with no apparent purpose besides advancing fundamental understanding.

Edited by brian0918

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Only a free society with an objective legal system allows individuals to make long-term investments. A democratic, statist society is too unstable for long-term planning, whether it is private or socialist. In an interventionist state, a business cannot be certain if its research will be outlawed or nationalized next year or decade. Government-funded research is not immune from this uncertainty, since their budgets are even more tied to political whim*. Today, your research better have something to do with the climate, anti-terrorism or AIDS; next election, it better be tied to alternative energy, population control, and stem cells.

The primary organizations doing basic research in our society are universities. Why do universities perform basic research? Well, one reason is that the best students need to learn the latest theory to apply it in practice in their career. Universities used to fund research without robbing taxpayers at gunpoint - Google is spending more on alternative energy than the Federal government. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are giving away over 30 billion dollars each to charity, Paul Allen sponsored the first private spaceship, and there are hundreds more billionaires willing to give their fortunes away for a worthy cause.

*Perhaps the best example of this is the sad fate of the Superconducting Super Collider.

Edited by GreedyCapitalist

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In another "forum", I recently suggested the privatization of scientific research, and was immediately confronted with the argument that private industry would never seek answers to the most fundamental questions of the universe due to the complexity, cost, and the lack of any short-term profitability. Here is a sample reply ... At face value this seems like a valid argument.

That quote is relying on the prejudice that capitalism is inherently short-sighted. It is wrong - the short-sightedness and increasing prevalence of it comes from the total inability to plan as a result of the completely unpredictable uncertainties generated by intervention. Get rid of intervention and investors' time-horizon will expand out far again. For example, 99-year bonds used to be common, but nowadays you're lucky if you get more than 30, and most of those are issued by stable governments. I find that a lot of people underestimate how important the concept of security of property really is.

Let's also assume that this minimum time frame is only possible if the government taxes everyone heavily and puts all of the taxes toward building larger and larger colliders to understand more and more.

I really have to question that assumption, and in a number of ways:

First, the costs of a project are not an issue any more: if a project is viable, irrespective of the length of term involved (see above on investor time horizons) then the money will be forthcoming, even if it runs into the tens of billions. Consider the $25b takeover of RJR Nabisco, or more recently the $44 billion for Yahoo. The money, private money, is there to anyone who can show the sums indicating viability.

Second, just because something is possible that doesn't mean it is desirable to everyone. Every now and then I see fellow geeks get excited about this or that technology, where the outcome is clearly valuable to them, but who never question its value to those who are not geeks. Either you are implicitly assuming that people are inherently incapable of seeing long-term benefits or you are implicitly saying that geeks' value preferences should be imposed on everyone else by government. Neither of these is acceptable.

Third, where the future outcome is markedly uncertain and forecasts of potential revenues are impossible, then what? Even under the false assumption of a government having general authority to fund this sort of thing, if there cannot be enough people interested enough to put their own money towards what they value then on what basis does that government claim mandate in this instance!? It's exactly the same issue as funding of the public arts, and has the same response: firstly, it is not the government's responsibilty to do this irrespective of how cool something may be; and secondly, if there is no voluntary support from private citizens then the project or art is on the backburner until there is enough support. In reality under these circumstances I think it more likely that a genuine project can gather a fair bit of money over the course of time through voluntary support. Don't underestimate how big the collection of trickles can get. For instance, check out [email protected]:

[email protected] does redundant computation: ... A redundancy level of two to three is adequate for this purpose. We generate work units at a bounded rate and never turn away a client asking for work, so the redundancy level increases with the number of clients and their average speed. These quantities have increased greatly during the life of the project. We have kept the redundancy level within the desired range by revising the client to do more computation per work unit.

How would an Objectivist society ever move toward and reach this breakthrough?

When the project can't be valued properly, by lots and lots of voluntary contributions, as is already done in similar long-term scientific projects. When a project can, I've already shown the large sums of cash that can be raised and expended by private businesses on single projects or transactions - but even so not everything done in an Objectivist world is by trading enteprises as normally understood. Universities in an Objectivist world would play a major role in research efforts (again, note UC Berkeley's involvement with [email protected]). In an Objectivist world they too would be profit-oriented, or at least voluntarily supported along with tuition fees. In order to attract top quality students and staff alike they could do quite a lot of this kind of research work. When a particular project gets very large and expensive, this can just mean that two or more universities can join together. Even though no particular product may eventuate for very long times, the fact of doing the research and learning from them is valuable in its own right and can be used to revenue-generating effect.

Also, the larger the project, the more problems there tends to be that need solutions. That means spin-offs, which themselves can lead to profitable products. So, even a single large corporation or a joint venture may well want to get involved in a really large project, partly to attract staff, partly as an advertising point, and partly because there are spin-offs that can help pay bills or even turn big profits. If a project gets REALLY big, then I can easily see a whole band of corporations and universities in a big joint venture, each getting different benefits from it along the way. In your 200-year scenario I would find it very hard to believe that there aren't quite a number of usable technologies and products developed that would keep investors happy.

JJM

Dang. Turn your back for five minutes and others pile on with pretty much all you had to say.

Edited by John McVey

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In a related note I am currently in the planning stage of a science fiction series where science has advanced, through capitalistic means, to the level of faster than light travel (and please don't comment on whether or not that is possible; that discussion belongs in another thread, not here).

FTL travel would not be necessary. If you could simply travel at the speed of light, you would be able to cross the entire universe in exactly 0 seconds from your perspective. Unless you were trying to travel back in time, then it would be necessary, however probably not possible short of some fundamental change in understanding.

Investors will want to invest in it to make money off new technology that works off this new knowledge, technology that won't take long to appear thanks to the wonders of modern technology like computers.

The point of the argument is that in theoretical physics, for example, there is no new technology, or purpose whatsoever, to making such advances in understanding as discovering the Higgs boson, except simply to know for sure.

Re: GreedyCapitalist

The primary organizations doing basic research in our society are universities. Why do universities perform basic research? Well, one reason is that the best students need to learn the latest theory to apply it in practice in their career.

That was initially going to be my counterargument, but fundamental physics often has no other purpose or applicability other than simply advancing scientific knowledge, without any intention to produce a profitable technology. What career is string theory applicable to?

Edited by brian0918

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That quote is relying on the prejudice that capitalism is inherently short-sighted. It is wrong - the short-sightedness and increasing prevalence of it comes from the total inability to plan as a result of the completely unpredictable uncertainties generated by intervention. Get rid of intervention and investors' time-horizon will expand out far again. For example, 99-year bonds used to be common, but nowadays you're lucky if you get more than 30, and most of those are issued by stable governments. I find that a lot of people underestimate how important the concept of security of property really is.

I think yours is probably the best line of attack against their argument. Check their premises and tear down as necessary. What is the economic explanation for why 99-year bonds have become obsolete?

Second, just because something is possible that doesn't mean it is desirable to everyone. Every now and then I see fellow geeks get excited about this or that technology, where the outcome is clearly valuable to them, but who never question its value to those who are not geeks. Either you are implicitly assuming that people are inherently incapable of seeing long-term benefits or you are implicitly saying that geeks' value preferences should be imposed on everyone else by government. Neither of these is acceptable.

I think the point of my example was that the technology, though centuries off from realization, would completely take over the market; so, it would be a wise investment if investors knew it was coming, but for some breakthroughs, investors don't know they are even possible, without decades or centuries of seemingly pointless unprofitable research. Does that make sense?

Third, where the future outcome is markedly uncertain and forecasts of potential revenues are impossible, then what? Even under the false assumption of a government having general authority to fund this sort of thing, if there cannot be enough people interested enough to put their own money towards what they value then on what basis does that government claim mandate in this instance!?

It is simply the result of governments competing for the title of "cutting edge of understanding". The world has set up a competition for no real purpose but to claim the title of brightest nation. Although one could definitely argue this does serve a purpose: attracting bright individuals and the best technology from around the world. Could this be replicated on a private scale given that a company can simply go out and find bright people and buy the best technology? In other words, there is no incentive for a company to bring jobs to a country.

It's exactly the same issue as funding of the public arts, and has the same response: firstly, it is not the government's responsibilty to do this irrespective of how cool something may be; and secondly, if there is no voluntary support from private citizens then the project or art is on the backburner until there is enough support. In reality under these circumstances I think it more likely that a genuine project can gather a fair bit of money over the course of time through voluntary support. Don't underestimate how big the collection of trickles can get. For instance, check out [email protected]:

That is not really a direct comparison because SETI is not attempting to discover new science, but simply using current science. One could also argue that the support for this project is the result of interest in state programs like NASA and that an Objectivist society focused on profitability would not cultivate individuals with such interests.

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The point of the argument is that in theoretical physics, for example, there is no new technology, or purpose whatsoever, to making such advances in understanding as discovering the Higgs boson, except simply to know for sure.

My first question then is what is the value of it? Objectivism and hence capitalism ties action to value. Every action has an opportunity cost. If we have people working on things that aren't going to be of any use to us for another 50 years, then imagine what they aren't working on that would actually have some value. The fact is not that capitalism wouldn't have someone working on the Higgs boson, it's just that it only applies the resources when there is actually some use for the knowledge on the horizon. It's actually very good at doing this. I hear people for instance decry that we must invest in alternative fuel technology because we'll need it in the future. Well, the realit it that when the price of oil goes high enough you will be stunned at how fast solutions to the problem are solved. The price mechanism is very effective at allowing the most effective allocation of resources.

As for mechanisms to do this in the free market, you first have to recognize that long term investment requires great profit. When government sucks the profit out of an economy, as with taxation, anti-trust, regulation, etc. it is the longest term investments that go first. To which government advocates then cry that govt must step in because free enterpise isn't doing the job. Hogwash. Free enterprise wasn't free enough to do the job. Step out! Laissez faire!!!

If you look at the pharma industry for example, the venture capital markets are as vibrant as anywhere else (although they coudl be moreseo if regulators would get out of the way). There the planning horizon is easily 20 years to see a return on investment. If profits were higher, then it woudl be longer. The mechanisms to do it already exist.

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I think the point of my example was that the technology, though centuries off from realization, would completely take over the market; so, it would be a wise investment if investors knew it was coming, but for some breakthroughs, investors don't know they are even possible, without decades or centuries of seemingly pointless unprofitable research. Does that make sense?

Uh, no. In order for something to be a good investment now that will not pay off for even 50 years the future state has to be very probable, and the profits have to be HUGE! That is basic finance. Pharma is the only industry where profit margins like that exist even on fairly risky projects.

Nothing 50 years out is rationally a good investment, not when our govt sucks the profit out of industry the way it does.

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Uh, no. In order for something to be a good investment now that will not pay off for even 50 years the future state has to be very probable, and the profits have to be HUGE! That is basic finance. Pharma is the only industry where profit margins like that exist even on fairly risky projects.

Nothing 50 years out is rationally a good investment, not when our govt sucks the profit out of industry the way it does.

So fundamental scientific advancement of this kind would not be possible in an Objectivist society... or are you silently rejecting one of my premises?

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What is the economic explanation for why 99-year bonds have become obsolete?

As an entree, check out this, which shows the decline of time horizon envisaged in bond issues. Beyond that, I can't offer you hard data but I can explain what others are talking about. Maybe A.West can give more of the actual thoughts of underwriters?

Issuers tend not to float the idea of bonds with really long term maturities because the underwriters are wary of taking them on. I suspect a major issue is how to value them - it was public announcement of various institutions' inability to value sub-prime debt which (via and in conjunction with other issues) triggered last year's panic. When done at full tilt (there are simplifications that I wont go into) the valuation of financial instruments requires a discount rate, and intervention has implications for that rate and hence the valuation process. The total value of a project is the sum of all the present values of the future net cash flows, where to get each present value that future cash flow is divided by a numerical factor. That factor is (1 + discount rate per annum / 100 ) raised to the number of years into the future (eg a 5% rate and 10 years means 1.05^10 = 1.6289), so the importance of the future falls off exponentially and does so even more rapidly if the discount rate is higher. Two chief issues come to mind here.

First, the discount rate directly affects the present value of the project and the comparison of time frames with competing projects. Say some project earns $5,000 per year for 100 years. The value of that project is $99,240 at 5% but only $71,346 at 7%. If this project requires an initial outlay of say $75,000 then it is just not going to get done if the average interest rate over that 100 year period is forecast to be above 6.65%. Contrast that to another project, also generating $5,000 per year, but only lasting 50 years and only costing half as much to get started. The effect of higher interest rates on this shorter life project is much less than upon the longer term project. Instead of a cut-off of 6.65%, this project would only get nixed if forecast average interest rates were above a whopping 13.30%. Thus as expected interest rates go higher the time horizon (and expenditure limits) for what can be justified shrinks, and only projects of ever shorter time horizons continue to get the go-ahead. Government intervention, particularly the generation of inflation, leads to that result.

The second is that there is not just one rate to consider but all the rates between now and then that must be taken into consideration when setting the one overall rate for the bond: the longer the maturity, the more time for interest rates to change in. In the old days that was doable for really long maturities, but not today. Have at a look at this: put in 1800-2000 and you will see that for the 19th century long term rates were low and stable: in the middle of the 19th century one could objectively start with a working figure of say 5% and be pretty much right for a long time. However, beginning at the dawn of the 20th century long-term rates started climbing again and by the close of WW1 they became more volatile too. One of the key elements in discount rates is a set of risk premiums, and the further into the future one peers, the greater the risk. When volatility increases, the risk premiums required also increase even if the average that the volatility bounces around may remain unchanged. With an ever-increasing tendency on the part of government to stick its nose into things and messing around with financial affairs, the worthwhileness of long-term forecasts of key figures becomes ever more suspect and hence is increasingly not done because the risk premiums become impossible to calculate for the longer term. It is not always governments that are the cause - the rapid pace of technological development and chance of obsolescence has effects, for instance - but the uncertainties generated by various government actions are a major source of this volatility and inability to forecast the financial future. If you can't generate numbers that can be tied to the real world then you cannot honestly evaluate a project and so cannot underwrite it or recommend it to clients, simple as that.

I think the point of my example was that the technology, though centuries off from realization, would completely take over the market; so, it would be a wise investment if investors knew it was coming, but for some breakthroughs, investors don't know they are even possible, without decades or centuries of seemingly pointless unprofitable research. Does that make sense?

Yes, I see, my mistake. You're asking what if the people in the know (or perhaps merely suspect) for whatever reason cannot make their case to the people in the money. That mostly just goes back to the initial point: at root the assumption is that most people wont understand arguments presented to them. That doesn't even mean people are necessarily irrational: Warren Buffet said he stays away from tech stocks because he doesn't know how to evaluate them yet I wouldn't say that he is an irrational investor! The answer is simple: if you can't make your case then your case is not made and the project stays shelved until that changes. If most people are rational then the most likely explanation is that their value priorities are different to yours. Alternatively, perhaps you haven't given them enough reason for them to make the effort to investigate your case more closely - investigation costs time and money, and the more capable they are of funding you the greater that cost to them is. Even if people were irrational this doesn't make a case for government involvement. There is a passage in OPAR about the bizarre contradiction involved in effectively saying that an authority is going to teach someone how to use their brains by bashing them in.

As to people suspecting that something might lead to a future benefit at some unknown point in time and after some unknown amount of expenditure, yet which you know from your god-like view will take over the market but in your equally god-like inscrutability can't or wont communicate, then one has to go with what's discussed next...

It is simply the result of governments competing for the title of "cutting edge of understanding". The world has set up a competition for no real purpose but to claim the title of brightest nation. Although one could definitely argue this does serve a purpose: attracting bright individuals and the best technology from around the world. Could this be replicated on a private scale given that a company can simply go out and find bright people and buy the best technology?

How do you feel about private initiatives like these? Like the Olympics, the main goals are the kudos and the breakthroughs, and secondarily to entice funding from investors through the advertising value of good showings in the competitions, not the receipt of the winnings. Actual products come later, though they are expected eventually and the X-Prizes are intended to bring them sooner rather than later. In a more rational society there would be even more money directed to foundations like these, more people like Anousheh and Amir Ansari, Paul Allen, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Sir Richard Branson.

Another enticement like this for research is the Methuselah Mouse Prize, ultimately aimed at prolonging human life spans.

That is not really a direct comparison because SETI is not attempting to discover new science, but simply using current science. One could also argue that the support for this project is the result of interest in state programs like NASA and that an Objectivist society focused on profitability would not cultivate individuals with such interests.

The point was not about the content of [email protected] but that even today there will be more support forthcoming for long-term projects with no cash value and no foreseeable achievement-date than cynics might assume.

Moreover, I would not say that an Objectivist society would be one populated by the kind of mercenaries you posit, either. In a world populated by the likes of us, many people (including these kinds of geeks) would continue to be happy to lend a hand here and there because they like doing it and like the fact that they are contributing to something they would like to see achieved even if that achievement may not arrive in their lifetime. Self-interest does not exclusively mean material gain. I would venture to say that the total of that helping hand arising from there being more people like us is apt to be enormous!

Finally, there are some legitimate grounds for a government space industry, though certainly NASA should be abolished and the responsibility be handed back to the USAF (plus a cut of funding from the CIA and NSA for satellite launches and the like). I am happy to see beneficial spin-offs from legitimate military research into spaceflight, and encouragement to non-military people back here on Earth. Think of the great interest that military air-shows generate, for instance. I dare say more than a few young space enthusiasts got their first taste of the possibilities from these shows, and good on them.

JJM

Edited by John McVey

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So fundamental scientific advancement of this kind would not be possible in an Objectivist society... or are you silently rejecting one of my premises?

Not at all. It would just happen closer to when it was needed.

The premise that "fundamental" science needs to be worked on tnow, even though it is good ofr nothing even in the near future is very, very flawed.

This whole thing boils down to an opportunity cost argument and it's very hard to get oher peole to understand because it is a form of neglected aspect. You can't see what advancements are being missed today, because people are working on this other crap, because well, they are being missed because people are working on this other crap.

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FTL travel would not be necessary. If you could simply travel at the speed of light, you would be able to cross the entire universe in exactly 0 seconds from your perspective. Unless you were trying to travel back in time, then it would be necessary, however probably not possible short of some fundamental change in understanding.

Firstly, I don't believe in that "time is relative" crap. Secondly, the crew do need to get back "in time." The CSE-100 Dragon is a science vessel so it needs to get back to its parent company in the lifetime of its current owners. Thirdly, I don't see any reason to think Einstein was right on the speed of light being an absolute. However, I want to discuss that elsewhere, not here. Here it is off-topic. Anyway, my series, for plot reasons, assumes a massive shift in our unmderstanding has occured.

*** Mod's note: Responses to this have been split into a separate topic ***

The point of the argument is that in theoretical physics, for example, there is no new technology, or purpose whatsoever, to making such advances in understanding as discovering the Higgs boson, except simply to know for sure.

That was initially going to be my counterargument, but fundamental physics often has no other purpose or applicability other than simply advancing scientific knowledge, without any intention to produce a profitable technology. What career is string theory applicable to?

My point is that even if it was only intended for discovery the theoritical physics you speak of will lead to new technology and in way less than one hundred years let alone 200. Some bright swcientist would grab upon that knowledge and invent some technology with it. There would be people in a capitalist society that would see that and as such would be willing to invest in the research.

In fact the gap between discovering the knowledge and using it would continue to shrink just like has been happening in real life since the industrial age (but is now getting arrested in many fields).

Also, as my sci-fi will illustrate, that as medicine and science advances, so will the length of our lifespan (in my sci-fi the average human lives 150+ years), people will be more inclined to invest very long term since they are more likely to be alive to see returns from the investment.

Edited by softwareNerd
Added "Topic Split" note

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Is fundamental scientific research possible in an Objectivist society?

Of course it's possible. How would it be done? Imagine a commercial center something like the NSF. They sell shares to the public, interested companies, etc, who have an interest in supporting that type of research, and dole out the funds to universities and others who submit "worthy" proposals. The company would license the resulting patents, thereby generating a return for the investors. If the company doesn't produce good results within a reasonable amount of time, donations stop and they go out of business. Easy.

You might say that such an organization couldn't raise the billions of dollars needed to build something like the superconducting supercollider. I agree, and therefore claim that such a thing shouldn't be built. If enough funds can't be raised voluntarily, then why would raising the funds by force (taxation) be justifiable? Because of some hoped-for benefit for the group at the expense of the individual?

The more important issue here, though, is why government should not be doing basic research. In order to do so, they have to tax the public, depriving them by force of the fruits of their labor. Those taxes are then applied to things that individuals may have no interest in. I could care less about the Higgs boson, for example. I don't care if it increases the understanding of the universe. I would rather apply my resources in other directions, so why should I be forced to pay -- it's immoral.

Edited by AceNZ

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Much that is taught in our universities was not produced in them. America has its geniuses, but an astonishing number of them did not come out of the universities. To illustrate these statements, let us consider the humanities and the sciences separately.

First the humanities.

Among the men whose works are taught in every English department, how many were themselves college products? Walt Whitman and Mark Twain are standard college authors, yet neither attended college. Poe went to the University of Virginia but was expelled. O'Neill enrolled a t Princeton but was suspended a t the end of a year. Sherwood Anderson's formal education ended a t the age of fourteen. Carl Sandburg went to work for a living a t thirteen. Hemingway was a high-school graduate, and had no further formal training. The situation is far worse in the plastic arts. Our painters and sculptors are for the most part products of professional art schools, not of college art departments.

Next the sciences.

I t is a well-known fact that pure science is largely the work of Europeans, whereas Americans have specialized in applied science. However, many developments in pure science have taken place in the United States. These have been identified, more often than not, with industrial laboratories rather than with laboratories of science departments in universities. Clinton J. Davisson and L. H. Germer discovered the diffraction of electrons by crystals (the famous photoelectric effect) in the Bell Telephone Laboratories. Information theory was the work of Claude E. Shannon of the Bell Telephone Laboratories. Carl Jansky is responsible for the radio telescope, the outcome of work accomplished in the same laboratories. No single university has such a record.

"The Genius versus the American University: Encouraging Creative Ability"

by James K. Feibleman; The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 31, No. 3. (Mar., 1960), pp. 139-142.

See also, 3M

http://solutions.3m.com/en_US/

See Dow Corning

http://www.dowcorning.com/

or More Dow Corning

http://www.dowcorning.com/content/etronics/

I was going to go down a long litany, but there is no point. Anyone who thinks that industry does not lead in "pure" research is just ignorant. If this is something you care about, then get a list of Fortune 100, 500 or 1000 companies and compile your own 3-ring of facts. Then, the next time some looter mystic spouts off, you can come back with your own favorite facts.

Another thing about Bell Labs... when they got too restrictive for genius, Shockley took the brains to California and started Fairchild. Being himself too dominating, all his guys ("the Fairchildren") left and started their own companies. We call it "Silicon Valley" today. Texas Instruments... who would have thought that some bench technicians in Dallas would change the world?

First of all, there are no government research labs. There are many government-funded projects. Success is for the proponents to demonstrate. The idea that universitoes do useful basic research is just a goal. Some university thinkers wanted to bring into the schools what was being done in industry, but without actually having to show any results... which they do not... No starships... no time travel... not even a better metal polish....

Edited by Hermes

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I haven't read all the thread. However, concerning scientific discoveries that don't ahve any ready practical applications, I remind you of Michael Faraday when asked what good were his discoveries regarding electromagnetism: "In ten years they'll be taxing it."

As for theoretical physics, who could tell ahead of time that knowledge of the inner workings of the atom would lead to powerful weapons and nuclear power plants? Or even that Newton's and Kepler's discoveries regarding the motions heavenly bodies would one day be essential to the telecom industry, not to mention the defense department, GPS systems, archeaologists, and every person and industry or agency that relies on satellites?

Remember that Nature to be commanded must be obeyed. That means understanding it as best we can. It follows that private industry has a tremendous incentive for funding all kinds of research, because eventually it will all pay off. Even such seemingly remote subjects as planetary astronomy and astrophysics will yield practical applications. Even if you don't want to colonize Mars, and believe me a lot of wealthy individuals would love to, ask yourself how far would biology get if it had only one species to observe. Understanding other planets helps us understand ours as well. Astrophysics is closely linked to particle physics. You may have heard about Quantum computers, a theoretical notion that is slowly producing real results towards faster, more flexible computers.

Geology? Ask any oil company or any mining company. Chemistry? Ask, again, any oil company, any pharmaceutical company, any steel-maker, any composite materials comapny. Nuclear Physics? Wouldn't the power companies love fusion reactors? Biology? Ask any pharmaceutical, again, any medical equipment maker, and any medical department of any hospital or university.

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To continue along D'Kian's line of thinking. Particle accelerators? Well, I bet the power companies would love it if antimatter production could be bought down to an affordable cost. A matter-antimatter reactor produces an amount of energy 2 orders of magnitude greater than a nuclear fusion reactor. One kilogram of antimatter mixed with one kilogram of matter can produce an energy amount equivalent of 47 megatons of TNT. As a comparision the most powerful nuclear weapon used hundreds of kilograms of matter to produce the 57 megatons.

What about many of the atomic and subatomic discoveries? Well, without them nanotechnology wouldn't be possible. Nanotechnology will allow many new and powerful technologies that are way smaller than today's. Because they are way smaller they will also be a lot cheaper. Intel are working on making CPUs using carbon nanofibers to make CPUs with fabrication sizes a lot smaller than their current 45nm range and without the need of a special material (high-K metals) to reduce leakage.

A group of researchers at a university have created a way to get lithium ion batteries (the current batteries that laptops, tablet PCs, and UMPCS, and cellphones use) to last for 10 times as long as today's using nano-sized silicon strands to absorb power.

Thanks to many discoveries that are bringing carbon nanofibre CPUs and optical CPUs ever closer, as well as discoveries that allow for teachnology that will happen before carbon nanofibre and optical CPUs, Moore's law of computing (the transistor count of CPUs doubles every 1.5 to 2 years without the CPU going up in price) is looking to not only continue for another 15+ years, but is in fact looking like it'll be blown away by much faster advancement than he predicted.

All of this uses discoveries that started off purely theoretical, but quickly became practical.

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Brian, Your underlying assumption is that cash is the prime motive for any productive activity.

Why?

There are plenty of people interested in scientific research which does not bare immediate cash-profit.

And also...

When I think of some of the greatest scientific discoveries and inventions, like Newton's laws, theory of relativity, the phone, electricity, some mathematical models.... Those were developed with a modest budget. In fact the main resources required for those was a man's curiosity and willingness to think.

And in any case, even if no one is interested in doing "purely theoretical" research,

Is it justified to rob people's money to give it to someone's favorite cause (in this case, scientific research)?

Who are you (referring to whoever supports such an idea) to say "shut up dumb people, you don't know what's good for you, I'll take your money and force you to accept what I think is good for you".

Can you see that such principle goes against the most basic requirements of human life?

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