The recent federal debt-ceiling squabbles included a lot of theatrics over spending, including that for government-funded research. How can we expect to keep up with tough international competitors, the argument goes, if we cut science R&D programs?

Trouble is, history doesn’t back up the contention that much innovation flows from scientific research. Evidence is that funds spent on science research add to the body of human knowledge, but usually don’t result in advances that boost the standard of living for anyone other than the few researchers involved.

Few of the pivotal innovations that paved the way for the industrial revolution, for example, came from scientists. Clinical biochemist Terence Kealey points out that fundamental advances in the steam engine came from three inventors — Thomas Newcomen, Richard Trevithick, and George Stephenson — whose formal educations did not extend much beyond the three R’s. And many historians think James Watt came up with his idea for an independent condenser with no help from scientific theory. Ditto for Lewis Paul and John Wyatt, who devised the first cotton spinning machine.

What went on in the workshops of these innovators and tinkerers was closer to trial-and-error stumbling than to science. In fact, the science that explained the principles behind these developments came only after the initial discoveries. Science journalist Matt Ridley points out that the real value of scientists has always been to explain empirical findings of technologists after discoveries have already been made. That’s not to claim that scientific discoveries are useless, he says. But they often do less to raise the standard of living than technologies that are “developed in remarkable ignorance of why they worked.”

Of course, progress in the 20th century has sometimes blurred the boundary between science and technology. But it has been applied work in private labs rather than government-funded pure science efforts that has had the biggest impact on our day-to-day lives. The transistor, for example, came from scientists who weren’t pursuing pure science. Physicists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley were working at Bell Labs when they invented the pointcontact transistor in an attempt to improve switching at telephone exchanges. Nor could the original IBM PC with its open architecture be called a scientific development. And neither Google nor Facebook, of course, got any help from any government. The latter arose from the desire of a few Harvard undergrads to find dates.

There is at least one sobering thought that emerges from this short review of technological history. Studies of public research by biochemist Kealey, who is also vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham in Britain, have concluded that every dollar spent on government research crowds out $1.25 of private research. By extension, a $100,000 government job, thus, is worth a $125,000 job in private industry. As the federal debt battles have so richly illustrated, public funds are finite. Faced with a choice between public and private research, it becomes clear where society would get the most bang for the buck.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.