Socratic Discourse 4
In which the position of science within a commercial society is discussed. The surroundings are habitually comfortable but, as will be seen, they distract in no way from the eventual outcome.
S. It seems, in order to be of any consequence in science these days, one needs to have control over ever increasing amounts of money.
-- Yes; this is becoming obvious. The more reason to proceed cautiously then, so as to achieve the best results in the most efficient way. Another case for logic I suppose - basing one's decision on firm rational ground, something for which you have argued many times!
S. Oh yes, that I did. But I wasn't thinking about the plan of action in any one scientific field right now; after all, if a person trained as a scientist cannot progress in a rational manner, then who can? No, what
concerns me is the possibility of the general public becoming unwilling to provide the necessary funds for such enterprises, and therefore stymieing the general progress which these programs create.
-- Are you worried then about the money drying up at all? There are many private sources which are ready and willing to pay such expenses.
S. I am aware of that. And one has to distinguish between those that furnish much needed funds for purely altruistic reasons and the others which by and large adjust their input according to the market forces prevailing at
any one time. The former help to establish a truly academic atmosphere; the latter preclude original research due to their very nature.
-- Is not the result of any research original?
S. In a sense of course it is. But as in everything depending upon human emotion, motivation is one of the key factors; and motivation only exists because of a specific interest. Take away the interest and the push into
any one particular area of science ceases.
-- But private firms are investing in research and development - whether enough for a proper competitive edge is another question of course.
S. True, the need for channelling one's own funds into developing new concepts is becoming more and more accepted, and I have no doubt that sooner or later this philosophy won't be regarded as alien by any business. My
point however is that to base an investment into research by relying only on the exigencies of the moment will not generate results that go beyond the immediate need, real or imagined.
-- Surely we are capable of envisaging a theoretical improvement without having to take recourse to an already established model and being able then to make a decision which allocates certain funds to that project!
S. Not if this project entails a novel system in itself. In this case the market forces will actually prevent it from coming to fruition.
-- How can that be?
S. Imagine you were using a drilling tool for example, and you were using it in a professional capacity. In other words, your income depended on the tool's efficiency and service. If any one of its parts had to be
replaced, would you not be limited in your choice?
-- You mean limited by my finances, in terms of the quality which I can afford to buy?
S. Certainly, that would be one consideration. But beyond that, would you simply go and exchange the product for a completely different one, simply because a fastener for instance was worn?
-- Of course not, such a purchase would be a waste of money.
S. But you realise that with your decision you inject capital - your capital - into one particular branch of the industry; and you do this for an entirely reasonable purpose, that is to save money and be as efficient in
your business as possible.
-- Exactly. And part of this money can go to research into better spare parts, which is an aim we both favour!
S. We do, as far as it goes. But it also means that because you spent your money on a new fastener and nothing else, the eventual research funds will be accumulating within a part of industry that is dedicated to fasteners
and associated products, but not much beyond.
-- I understand. Because I automatically direct my money towards things which exist already there never will be money available for anything that is totally different.
S. This is an important point. Any research funds which are completely adjusted by the forces of the free market place will always gravitate towards already established products; and if there is new ground being broken then
it is only a diversion from the basic concept, but hardly anything radically new. After all, how could you possibly walk into any store and ask for something which doesn't even exist yet?
-- That much is clear. Are you arguing against commercially dependent research then?
S. Not at all. There is no better motivation than the free market place when it comes to improving a design already in existence. But that is just the point. A budget-conscious executive, when given the choice between a
new version with an assured competitive edge and something totally new altogether with no proven track record will always choose the former. And, it has to be said, as a worthy executive he has no choice.
-- Then we need a combination of the two systems, with each existing in its own right.
S. This is the ideal, yes. A vigorous progress when it comes to the design of ever better facilities, but at the same time a source of detached benevolence which accepts the long term advantages derived from scientific investigations; not so much as an exercise in consumerism, but as an intellectual activity that delights in unexpected insights. As welcome as private contributions in this area are, they cannot be depended upon; rather, society as a whole has to channel some of its energy through the relevant public instrumentalities towards such establishments. It is a mark of civilisation.