Lessons From Game of Thrones: Invention & Innovation Requires Public Commitment

In the very first episode of a Game of Thrones,  10-year-old  Branden Stark had an unfortunate “accident”. He was pushed from a high window and nearly died. Although he survived, he was paralyzed from the waist down.  A few episodes later,  the decidedly book-smart and wealthy  Lord Tyrion Lannister offered Bran a gift.  He designed  a special saddle so Bran could ride horseback once again.

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Invention often happens that way.  Someone with the technological know-how and the money, sees a need and acts to fill that need.  This is but one of the more minor routes to discovery and invention.  It is simple, direct, but far from the most likely.  For the most part, big gains and earth changing discoveries are generally not sprints; they are marathons.

In March the New York Times featured an article by William J. Broad entitled “Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science”.

Although the title may sound a bit melodramatic,  it isn’t.  The US has been abdicating its long established role in the funding of basic and applied research.  Its become a slow motion train wreck with death by 1000 cuts.  After years of  mini cuts  undermining a generation of scientists, engineers and discovery, the sequester really knocked the legs out from under publicly funded research.  For good or ill, private financing is filling more and more of the gaps. This will have an enormous impact on the future viability and direction of scientific research for the foreseeable future.  To quote Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst for the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science):

The practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money.

Is this a bad thing? The answer is that that depends on many factors. But here are some of the potential pitfalls:

Science is not a business and can not be run like one…

Science is very often trial and error.  Most benefactors are bottom-line types and these two are going to mix about as well as oil and water. For the most part, success in science (particularly the life sciences) comes from going down 100 blind alleys in order to open one door. Then you go down another 100 blind alleys to find the next door.  I predict that extremely wealthy people who think in an entrepreneurial way will have a very hard time understanding that there is no way around this process.

The talent pool will be limited to roughly 5% of the 1%….

Most private funding centers around solving specific problems with established researchers.  Problem-solving doesn’t train the next generation.  You need a whole other infrastructure and money for that.  Where is that going to come from?  Without substantial subsides, these disciplines will become the exclusive province of  the already wealthy. Unless there are training grants and jobs, these  fields are simply too risky and the education too time consuming for anyone but the 1%.   The trouble is that few people have the mind, drive and ability of a Tyrion. In our world that means limiting the discovery process to the 5% of the 1% who have all the necessary intellect, drive and  resources. You need a critical mass of intellectual focus for things to move forward. We aren’t going to get there through private funding.

Sexy science will get funded at the expense of basic (but essential) research…

Public funding tends to be geared toward a more global perspective in terms of need.  Private funding tends to encompass  “sexy” and compelling projects, and issues impacting the wealthy directly.  Tyrion was driven by compassion for the young boy, Bran.  But Bran was the son of one of the highest Lords of Westeros.  Tyrion looked in his own “back yard” so to speak, and found a need he could fulfill. But the top 1% do not seem to be spending tons of time on the ground with the rest of us.  How can they understand our needs?  Further, there is a lot of “boring” basic research that needs to be done that is far from compelling.  Alarm bells are already sounding with respect to this kind of “skewing”.

Will private foundations be willing to undertake marathon projects before there is a crisis?

Let’s take a case in point:  We are rapidly running out of viable antibiotics.  At this point we are in serious danger of reverting back to a time when relatively simple infections had people dropping like flies.  Surgery was full of such hazards in large part because of the risk of post-operative infection.  So far this hasn’t touched the 1%.  And it probably won’t until it is too late to avert disaster for most of the world’s population.  But antibiotic research isn’t “sexy”, it isn’t profitable and it isn’t quick.   I don’t know of any private foundations that would be interested in an all out search for the next generation of antibiotics.  Which is why we are headed towards a crisis.  Yet the urgent need is NOW, before the high body count appears.   Public foundations like the CDC and WHO are more likely to be proactive if they are not underfunded.

Dark Ages Redux…

A history teacher I had in high school once said that “progress does not always move in a forward direction.”  He sighted the fall of Rome and the descent into the Dark Ages as a prime example.

The society of Westeros is very similar to that of Europe towards the end of the dark ages.  In many ways they are more advanced.  But like the our own Dark Ages, progress in Westeros is measured by in tiny increments.  The structural support for more robust progress doesn’t exist.  We need only look to the Dark Ages of our own world to see how well the disintegration of the infrastructure and knowledge base that was part of Roman society worked out for everyone. It  resulted in centuries of stagnation with no growth and no relief from the misery of a subsistence existence. With about 0.05% of the population actually engaged in activities that would move society forward, it was small wonder that it took centuries to crawl out of the abyss.

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