Thursday, August 15, 2019

More And More, Eisenhower's "Second Warning" Is Coming True

Ike and Mamie Eisenhower at the White House
Via Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas 
In his farewell address, President Eisenhower gave our nation two warnings. Although we usually only hear about one of them, both have proven prescient:
  • The caution about the "military-industrial complex" becomes more dire all of the time. We are far overextended in the Middle East. From what I can tell, many in the military like it that way (people in combat tend to get promoted more than during times of peace) and the weapons suppliers grow their already-large businesses (even though some of those weapons are extraordinarily expensive and are of dubious value). The media periodically mentions this warning from Eisenhower, so at least the citizenry is aware. 
  • The far less well known warning is the one about what I call "Big Science." We almost never hear of it. 
As a technology publication put it last year:

President Eisenhower surrounded himself with brilliant academics, he knew that science ended World War II without costing another million American lives, but by 1961 he also knew “we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
He worried about that government control over funding would change the nature of the “free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery.” And it has. If you want to find happiness in an academia, find a humanities professor at a small college. If you want to find pressure, go to a biology lab at Johns Hopkins, which needs $300 million a year from the NIH if it’s going to put up new buildings and recruit key names who can then raise more money from NIH.
I bring this up because more and more are noticing what is a serious issue for the future of our children and grandchildren. Without innovation, it will be nearly impossible to maintain or improve the standard of living for them and for the rest of the world. More than that, these days, scientists themselves are actively calling for censorship and muting of dissident voices

With this in mind, I have two thoughts that I believe are worth sharing.
  1. From a policy standpoint, how do we encourage entrepreneurs, especially in science, technology and engineering? I am not talking about another silly iPhone game app. I'm talking about things that will matter. 
  2. How we do fund large projects other than directly through government (e.g., National Academy of Science)? 
Regarding the second thought, some universities seem reluctant to obtain funding from large companies, the obvious source of funding for large projects. Okay, that's fine, I suppose. 

But how about this? The large universities either directly fund research from their (tax-free) endowments or those endowments become taxable? Otherwise, what are they for? 

The top four university endowments total more than $100,000,000,000! You can fund a lot of research with that kind of dough. 

In my perfect world, to encourage outside the box thinking, the universities would appoint a committee of independent business people and innovators who would make the grants so, to the extent possible, they money would go to genuine innovation and not be subject to the intense pressure toward the "political correctness" large universities seem to enjoy applying to themselves.

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