Thursday, December 28, 2006

Every Invention Has Its Costs

While visiting home this Christmas, I mentioned to a family friend my research for my dissertation. It consists of demonstrating that competitive structures like the Ansari X Prize (a $10 million prize to the first privately funded team that could get into space twice in two weeks) is preferred to a centralized structure (such as NASA) for the purposes of discovering new technology.

In this brief discussion, my brother seemed it necessary to point out that contestants used NASA-made technology to accomplish the task. He is correct, but I fail to understand the relevance. He is probably suggesting that the base technology everyone used could have only come from a state agency, in this case NASA. This sort of argument is common in the economics of science and it is foolish, just as it would be foolish to claim that because the free market invented the Apple computer, a state agency never could. The question is not of possiblity--given enough time, money, or people any organization can invent anything that is scientifically possible--but of relative cost.

For some reason, people groan when I talk about costs. I'm told that they are not everything and that's true: otherwise gum would always be preferred over a car because it's always cheaper. The benefits must also be weighed. Yet it is those that claim I think costs are everything that then turn around and claim benefits are everything. NASA created an invention, they might say, and thus we must be better off. I hope you can see why this logic, which refuses to ask what society gave up to achieve this marvelous invention, is flawed.

To insist technology should be created merely because the result might prove useful to the private sector is the same as scouring the streets for hours on end in hopes of finding money left on the sidewalk. There are cheaper ways to improve quality of life.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious, David - in what category would you place "conventional" funding sources like the NSF and NIH?

David said...

I'm not sure what you mean by "category." Both are certainly political agencies and thus prone to be less careful with the funds that they distribute (and more subject to politics over reality), if that's what you mean.