The Weaponisation of pure Research.
In the beginning was the idea, because nothing moves across the face of the waters until the idea comes into existence, and it comes in two varieties. The first one is an idea you’re pretty sure is viable but what remains to be done is working out the exact mechanism to make it become a reality. It’s like climbing up a knotted rope with each of the knots being a problem to be solved, but you always know you’re going to get to the top. It’s procedural and inclines more towards the development side of that classic grouping of research and development.
The second variety leans the other way, towards pure research, and is a much trickier beastie because put quite simply, you don’t know whether it’s a rubbish idea or not until you test it, and the only way of answering that question is to ante up some dough to do the research. It’s classic poker. You’re going to have to pay if you want to see those hidden cards.
The idea itself may come as a freebie, perhaps from someone as unlikely as a patent clerk fiddling in his spare moments with equations describing the very fabric of the universe but after that, someone has to stump up some dough if it’s not to languish in obscurity on the shelf as an interesting but slightly orphaned idea as with Gregor Mendel and his pea plants.
There are three types of player in the financing game.
The first one is government. By and large, it doesn’t finance development of altruistic ideas but concentrates on ones about warfare or security – essentially, ideas we can kill each other with. It does so if only because it quite naturally expects unfriendly governments to be doing exactly the same thing with those self-same ideas. The Manhattan Project would be the prime example. Einstein et al, the physics and the math indicated you can make a helluva bang by splitting some uranium atoms, so they threw shed loads of money at it because they didn’t have much in the way of choice.
In more recent decades, DARPA financed the development of a communications network which didn’t have any central hubs. They did so because they confidently and quite rightly expected such hubs to obliterated in the first strike of a nuclear exchange.
Before people get into full sneer mode at the type of research government funds, it’s worth acknowledging the collateral benefits rather than damage such state-sponsored research often produces. For instance, France has been producing 80% of its electricity from nuclear reactors since the 1950s and that de-centralised message switching network of DARPA was actually the hardware backbone of what was to become the world wide web, with nothing remaining to be done but the trivial step of adding a human clickable interface to it, which Tim Berners-Lee did.
However, the bottom line on most government-funded research is that it’s done only because there is definite potential to weaponise the fruits of it. It’s Daddy Warbucks flashing his dough around.
The next big player to fund research is business. In a very similar way to government, it’s only interested in the type of research that falls under product development and there is a potential pay off point in the future. Strictly speaking, instead of weaponising an idea, they’re figuring out ways to get it to market and make a buck out of it, but the difference is really only doctrinal. Figuring out how to make a profit from an idea is very much weaponising it, from an enterprise viewpoint.
In a very narrow sense, it occasionally does what could be seen as pure research. I’m thinking here of things like a couple of technically savvy kids putting together the first personal computers in their parent’s garage and then organically growing a company from that idea. They get a bit of lead time but as soon as they try to get investors on board, the whole thing becomes much more commercially focused, otherwise it will not attract development finance.
They are indulged for the first few years or so because their backers don’t really understand sunrise industries but after the business goes public, earnings per share and dividends have to increase each year or it will go bust or be devoured by a corporate predator. Enterprise capitalism remorselessly eats its own weaker children – guts, gonads, gizzard and all, without even breaking step on its relentless march towards the bottom line, where the whole process begins afresh with the start of each financial year. That is the nature of the beast.
The third and final grouping that finances research is a ragbag of non-governmental, non-enterprise bodies, but mainly consisting of the higher centres of academia such as universities but with the odd endowed private institution founded to pursue research on a specific subject. Prior to the last three decades, they all did what could be termed pure research, sometimes known as science to the general public.
Mostly, it’s a waste of money, always has been and always will be. At a guess, I’d say 97% of it is eminently forgettable and of course is promptly forgotten. It’s perhaps me getting more reactionary in my old farthood, but I do feel of late that the percentage of forgettable crap produced has crept up significantly, but that could just be my memory starting to play tricks on me.
Once in a while it mines out a diamond but we’re talking every century or so, and the follow on thought is that so many of the diamond producers were never products of any educational system, tertiary or otherwise. I’ve remarked before that we now spend more on education that ever in the Earth’s history, and the returns do seem to be diminishing. I’m given to understand by a friend at the education coal face that even after you cut out those tough courses like remedial basket weaving or disco dancing, barely a third of freshers make it through to completing their third year.
It’s a tired and cynical numbers game played by politicians and epitomised by the former UK prime Minister Tony Blair. He said as an election promise his aim was quite simple – education, education and education. The reality is he actually cut funding to higher education in real terms and by the end of his premiership, tuition fees had gone from one thousand pounds per year to six and they’re still heading north. When you lump on top of that the loans a student is obliged to shoulder, there’s not much change from a thirty-five to forty thousand pound debt after three years of education.
You can see why convincing a working class lad from a modest background that any sort of higher education could be worth those sort of numbers is a tough sale. Where he comes from, forty thousand pounds is indistinguishable from forty million pounds – dream on Teacher man. Educational upward mobility, just like social mobility, has stalled in Britain. It’s a terrible betrayal of ground so hard-won by previous generations. It’s pure Animal Farm, the ruthless Capitalists have become indistinguishable from the porcines punting themselves out as political representatives of the working man. They’re all self-absorbed pigs cut from the same privileged cloth.
As the eighties drew to a close, all the elements of a perfect storm came together and it was not planned – merely a cursed configuration of circumstances. Governments wanted bragging rights about what percentage of their youth progressed to third level education, and the only way to do that was to drop entrance standards. In response, tertiary education tanked the minimal requirements and now the all growed up indifferent products of mediocrity are dutifully educating the young bright minds of the twenty-first century, and it’s tantamount to child abuse at times.
Faculties for “hard” subjects such as chemistry folded but the areas like media studies thrived and grew to engulf and devour all in their path like ravening beasts. At the same time, governments didn’t want to actually increase education budgets to finance such a massive expansion in education so the poor beleaguered chancellors of universities had to go out pan handling to business and of course, accommodations were made. The dreaming spires aside, there’s always been an element of cap and gown wheedling some money out of the merchant class, but this was different.
Rather than the usual form of the merchant benefactors saying here’s a whacking dollop of money, finance something earth shattering with it and rename the new wing after me, they were saying I want you to do research for me on a specific and weaponisable idea. It was no longer pure research, it was development with contractual agreements to sort out who got which slices of equity once it came to market.
In effect, commerce was doing nothing more than harnessing the best and brightest kids as an off-site research and development department, but of course that doesn’t work when you’re dealing with the once a century type of kiddo. It’s all very interesting young Isaac, but tell me how can we make money out of shining a light through a prism? Is there any way you can kill people with it?
The final element of the storm was the collapse of the liberal dream in the eighties. Reagan, Thatcher and Kohl ruled supreme, the bottom fell out of the Soviet Union and the old pattern of the populace habitually voting along class lines disintegrated. The whole half-century Marxist dialectic analysis of society was proved wrong, the historical inevitability of the triumph of global socialism crashed and burned, and nobody appeared to give a rat’s ass about its passing anyway.
Extremist of the left, just like extremists of the right, never ever give up. It took a decade or so to find a way forward to still pursue those same political aims and it gradually became clear that co-opting the environmental movement was the way to go. The names, places, policy titles and the political rationale for them all changed but it was still moving towards the same old restructuring of western society.
Climate research became a highly politicised branch of science and therefore became plagued with all the demons coming out of the Pandora’s box of politics. Debate ceased to be about the substance of the subject but its shadow. It was no longer about fluid dynamics but about how exploitable pliable public opinion could be. Attacks on the man supplanted any rational refutation of what he was saying.
There really wasn’t much of anything in the way of a scientific rationale, everyone gradually began to bet hot and heavy on the roulette wheel’s red 14, which was Carbon being the root of all global warming evil that would destroy the world and could only be avoided by deconstructing democratic capitalism. Increasingly, that bet looks to have been a scientifically indefensible one, but they’re by now totally locked into it.
People didn’t panic in the direction intended, mother nature didn’t co-operate with theory and as the years trucked on, red 14 can only be defended as a decent bet if you ignore the real world data stacking up against it. That dam is cracking everywhere and the data is blasting holes in it. Increasingly, mainstream climate scientists look like clowns with their fingers stuck into the dyke and the lady in question really ain’t too bothered about their attentions.
That’s called reality.
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