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Howard's End: Publicly Funded Research Pays

There's good news for New Zealand university and research institutes' seeking public funding following the release of a Stanford University study which shows that the economic return on publicly funded basic research, while slow in coming, is far greater than previously thought. Maree Howard writes.

What many cash-strapped scientists have known for decades has been confirmed by a new study released today.

Using the research-intensive pharmaceutical industry as an example, Stanford University economists have released a study which found that just a 1 percent increase in public support for basic research ultimately leads to a 2.4 percent increase in the number of new, commercially available drugs.

The researchers used the pharmaceutical industry because of its unique focus on rapid and frequent scientific innovation, but basic research can also pay off in many industries.

I'll bet you didn't know that chaos theory in mathematics was a complete backwater in the 1970's until a naval research program officer started the first program investigating it.

Since then the theory has paid off in numerous ways including the large cranes at sea ports which can now unload ships in high winds because they are controlled by chaos-theory algorithms.

And did you know that cellular phones, so common today, would also be a thing of the future without basic publicly-funded research.

Electronic materials like gallium arsenide are a foundation of the information technology revolution which everyone seems to forget.

But there wouldn't be a cell phone industry today if the U.S. Navy hadn't begun the first, and for more than a decade the only, gallium arsenide research program in the 1960's.

In the 60's, benefits were analysed of the payoff of research done by publicly-funded scientists which found that each dollar invested in fundamental science research returned about 30 to 50 cents per year thereafter.

But this new Stanford University study has confirmed what many scientists have been saying to politicians for years - that because of efficiencies the economic return on publicly-funded basic research was more than the 30 to 50 cents per dollar of the 60's era.

There are also indirect research payoffs which are often forgotten. Government funded and university-based fundamental science research is now often cited by companies as the source of their patents.

As a country in the so-called globalised knowledge wave, New Zealand simply must do better.

My father's advice; "Aim for the stars and you might hit the ceiling - but aim for the ceiling, and your feet won't leave the floor."

Or, as a nation, are we like the man who was walking along the foreshore picking up small crabs and placing them in a bucket which had no lid.

He was asked; "Aren't you afraid that they'll crawl up and get out"

"Nah," the man said, "they're New Zealand crabs, every time one tries to crawl up, the others pull him back down."

You can be a star or a crab? Your choice!!


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