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Unless the West invests in basic science, we will cede the future of technology to other regions

Science and Technology: Handmaidens to Capitalism Under Siege

Over the years, the two concepts “science” and “technology” have melded together in many people’s minds to become “science and technology.” So often heard together, the two seem to be joined at the hip.

In popular culture, the phrase “science and technology” is rife. There are several Museums of Science and Technology in the United States. The California Council on Science and Technology brings together academic institutions and federal affiliates to promote technology education in California. Even the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California, right in the heart of Silicon Valley, is labeled “a museum of science and technology” on its Website.

But they are two entirely different ideas. Science follows a long-established set of rules to ascertain the truth of things, to understand with ever greater accuracy, the nature of reality. Technology is about making money.

The Oxford Reference on Science and Technology says it rather nicely: “Science encompasses the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment, and technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.” Note the comparative lengths of the two descriptions. Technology is rather concise.

In this duo of science and technology, order is important. It’s not technology and science. It’s science and technology, indicative of their position in the moral hierarchy, similar to the arrangement between church and state. Church is a higher calling. State is profane and worldly.

And so it is with science and technology. Arguably, you couldn’t have the one without the other. And yet, there remains that clear distinction. Science is pure. Technology is all about applications that ultimately return capital.

In a technology enterprise, the rubber meets the road when the sales of technology products brings in enough revenue to support scientific effort. Companies like IBM, Intel, and Qualcomm are science and technology pistons.

I’ve observed the technology industry over the years as commercial operations of major developers and manufacturers waxed and waned. In general, the trend has been to slash budgets for R&D to improve short-term profits, on which top management is often compensated. This borrowing from the future to feed the present is a general feature of a class of executive whose primary job is to manage the organization, to be a specialist in the ways and politics of that particular house.

In a classic example, when Mark Hurd took over as CEO at Hewlett-Packard (HP) in 2005, he immediately began to throttle back on most purely scientific research, favoring instead the lower part of the funnel, the development projects expected to yield actual commercial products. At the time, the printer division was still holding up company profits, and the PC group was helping drive revenue, but new big markets were scarce. The problem was, throwing away the traditions of the original HP labs killed the goose that might have actually laid the next golden egg. In science, you can’t see around corners. You have to experiment.

In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari addresses the relationship between science, capitalism, and politics. He notes that Western (really Northern) Europe was able, starting in the 16th century, to out-compete other regions like China, India, and the Middle East — which were nearly on par at the time — via the tight coupling of these three domains. A foundational Western concept was the belief in a future of greater wealth, generated by investment, that could be used to pay back loans to build production now.

But as we in the West watch our various public institutions crumble, and trust — most importantly business trust — begins to decay, people are not so sure that the future will be better, richer, or healthier than the past, and reinvestment of profit starts to take a back seat to current consumption. After all, if you eat that pound of Beluga caviar sitting in front of you now, no one will be able to take it away from you later on. The money you put in the bank or stock market, however, may disappear any number of ways: fraud, bank failure, inflation.

Inflation itself is a measure of public trust. If people don’t trust the money, they ask for more of it for a given transaction, believing, in a self-fulfilling manner, that it will be worth even less tomorrow. With opportunists in every sphere gaming the system (priests seducing children because they can, politicians appointing their cronies to undo laws that benefit the public but harm their parochial interests, corporate executives stiffing stockholders by colluding with the board on their own compensation, generals working with their pals in industry to create wasteful weapons programs), it’s no wonder everyone has started sacrificing investment in the future to look after their own local, short-term interests. This is how trust breaks down. And in a political climate in the United States where suspicion of science and the scientific method are widespread, this decline is accelerating.

Despite the ivory-tower demeanor of many scientific researchers, science has never been independent of the power centers that drove it. As Harari points out, the funding sources choose the projects, not the scientists. And in today’s hard-nosed, pragmatic world, those sources are less inclined every day to bet on basic research, preferring instead to step through the science as quickly as possible and get straight to technology development.

Other nations — notably China, but also others — are closing the technology gap with the West. It is only a matter of time before one or more of them surpasses us. At the public and private level, they are investing their surpluses in basic science, and that science is coming to fruition as technology, some of which may help their empires unseat ours. Because the engine of progress that has been working in the West for 500 years seems to be breaking down, I have the disturbing feeling that this chapter won’t end well for our economy, political system, and social fabric — unless we act to restore trust and the rule of law.

As surely as Holland outmaneuvered Spain with a reliable mercantile culture, others will take the world from us if we don’t restore confidence in that vital blend of science, technology, and capital that made us world leaders in the first place.

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