How many times have we heard someone say, “X doesn’t deserve to lead because he’s never created a job”? Such a comment gets used also in relation to government in general and to academia. Let’s consider two cases:
1. NASA and the Military space program
It’s an old observation that our space program has created much of the technology that is a part of our modern lives. We can debate some details, but think about the communication that’s possible now. Consider how it’s possible to know exactly where we are by consulting a single gadget. The most obvious contribution is the way in which space has been opened up. This is the result of the national programs of America, Russia, and others.
These days, private companies are taking advantage of these technologies to provide products and services. Remember that space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey? A corporate transportation company carried Dr. Floyd into space and to the Moon, and he used a service that looked a lot like Skype to talk to his daughter. All of that is likely in the near future, and the companies that will provide it will have got the underlying technology from scholars and the government.
2. The Internet
And I ain’t talking Al Gore here. The Internet is the creation of DARPA, the military’s research agency, and universities. Since you’re here reading this article on-line, I don’t have to explain the value of their work, nor must I tell you about the many jobs that exist because of it. Jeff Bezos is a smart person, but he’d still be moving paper around in a hedge fund firm if it weren’t for the Ivory Tower and the Gummit.
What do we learn here? Some technologies require decades to mature. Private companies or corporations can’t spend that long and that much money to develop them. Schools and governments have the time. If we deny them the money, we shut off a great deal of potential. At the same time, having established the field, the government especially needs to open it up for everyone to participate and to get out of the way. SOPA and attempts to ban types of content between consenting adults are examples of not letting go.
We can spend our society’s money in many ways. Promoting science and technology has clear, if long term rewards. A society that wishes to thrive must do this.