Scientific Miracles

Bill Gates is looking for an energy miracle. Fossil fuels pollute, but they are far and away the cheapest and most efficient fuels. Nothing else has come close and, argues Mark Mills in The New Atlantis, we cannot imagine anything coming close, given the current state of physics.

To get a miracle, we don’t need more money or energy in improving current technologies. We need a conceptual revolution, a theoretical breakthrough. And, Gates knows, this can only come by devoting more money and talent to basic research.

 

That money and talent is hard to come by, Mills points out: “the data show that in today’s research budgets there is a huge skewing in preference for the ‘D’ in ‘R&D.’ Only around 7 percent of business R&D spending in the United States is focused on basic research; a larger portion goes to applied research (16 percent) and the lion’s share goes to development (77 percent). And business accounts for 65 percent of all R&D spending.”

Spending on “R” doesn’t have immediate payoffs. It’s driven more by curiosity than by technical or financial interests. Mills observes that the “temptation grows almost irresistible to cut out the curiosity-driven side of the linear model — the ‘useless’ or, at any rate, not immediately or obviously useful part of research — leaving us only with goal-directed research.”

Breakthroughs are often unanticipated surprises, and so “goal-directed research” is unlikely to get what we need. Breakthroughs often occur outside the mainstream of science, which again makes it difficult to predict or guide.

According to Mills, there is “good evidence that the funding of undirected, noble pursuits like curiosity-driven basic research can yield as much utility as — and perhaps even more than — purpose-driven development projects, at least when it comes to producing ‘miracles.'”

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