Monday, April 08, 2013

Presidential science initiatives (including the Internet)

President Obama has called for initiatives to map the human brain and bring an asteroid to Earth for study.

What a breath of fresh air to see a president who is thinking beyond today's simple minded political jousting -- even if the proposed budgets are just a down-payment for planning and design.  It is reminiscent of President Kennedy telling Congress:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.
(I get kind of misty typing that quote).

Of course there have been other noteworthy presidential efforts -- check the "Progressive Professor's" list of the top 15 presidential science investments, starting with Thomas Jefferson's sponsoring of Lewis and Clark.

Although no single president can take the credit, I would add a sixteenth to the professor's list -- the funding of the research and development that led to the Internet. The US taxpayers got quite a bargain -- this is what it cost us:

One can argue that this $124 million was only for research and development and we should also count the money spent on government procurement -- most notably SAGE, a networked early warning system for manned bomber attacks (video), which cost an estimated $8 billion. (The SAGE video is a bit off topic for this post, but it highlights technical progress beautifully .  Even if you include SAGE and prototypes like MIT project Whirlwind, the networking investment has paid off handsomely.


Update 4/9/2013

Prominent scientist thinks the brain map should have more funding.  Harvard professor George Church, a veteran of the human genome project and an advocate for this study says the project should start small and have funding from several agencies. be ambitious and focus on developing new technologies from the start.  Lots more ... this is a recommended article.

Update 8/13/2014

For Vint Cerf's description of the ARPA/Internet project, see this post.

Update 4/27/2015

In this video of his keynote presentation at the SCI Institute, Alan Kay describes the ARPA funded research that led to the development of the Internet and the personal computer. The talk begins with the visions of people like Vannevar Bush and JCR Licklider and runs through the years at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

Kaye concludes that the work at PARC cost Xerox about $40 million in 2012 dollars -- funds for around 30 researchers for four years. He estimates that Xerox made 300 times its that through sales of laser printers, even though they failed to capitalize on other PARC inventions. He estimates that the payoff to the US and world from all the PARC inventions was around $33 trillion by 2012.

The entire talk is over and hour, followed by questions and answers. The portion in which he talks about PARC and estimates the return on investment, begins at the 1 hour, 1 minute point.

Update 10/22/2015

The US National Economic Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy have published a Strategy for American Innovation.

It is a long document with both strategic and specific points. This is one paragraph from a section on the Federal Government’s Foundational Role:
When U.S. companies develop a breakthrough product like a smartphone, it is appropriate to celebrate American firms and workers. But it is also important to recognize the value of the decades of Federal investment in R&D that provided these new products’ scientific and technological foundations, such as the Internet, the Global Positioning System, speech recognition, electronic design automation for advanced microprocessors, and artificial intelligence for virtual assistants. Although companies must ultimately invest a great deal to commercialize emerging technologies, the new insights, early prototypes, and the first markets for them are often supported by the Federal Government. Absent Federal investment, many new products would not ever reach the market, let alone reach world-changing scale.
The smartphone example is taken from Mariana Mazzucato's “The Entrepreneurial State," and provides a good example of the role of the Federal Government in research and procurement of early, limited-market products.