On December 2, 2015, the centennial anniversary of the publication of Einstein's general theory of relativity, science fans everywhere reflected on this amazing act of genius. But the theory was not born, fully formed, in some eureka moment. Albert Einstein chipped away at it for years. He was finally driven to complete it by a fierce (though collegial) rivalry with mathematician David Hilbert [see “How Einstein Reinvented Reality,” by Walter Isaacson; SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, September 2015].
Examine the detailed history of almost any iconic scientific discovery or technological invention—the lightbulb, the transistor, DNA, even the Internet—and you'll find that the famous names credited with the breakthrough were only a few steps ahead of a pack of competitors. Recently some writers and elected officials have used this phenomenon, called parallel innovation, to argue against the public financing of basic research.
In his new book, The Evolution of Everything (Harper, 2015), for example, British science writer Matt Ridley claims that government just gets in the way of the natural evolution of science and invention. Many in the U.S. Congress agree. We spend too much taxpayer money on science, some politicians say. Government should leave it to companies to finance the research they need.
These arguments are dangerously wrong. Without government support, most basic scientific research will never happen. This is most clearly true for the kind of pure research that has delivered enormous prestige and great intellectual benefits but no profits, such as the work that brought us the Higgs boson, or the understanding that a supermassive black hole sits at the center of the Milky Way, or the discovery of methane seas on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan. Company research laboratories used to do this kind of work: experimental evidence for the big bang was discovered at AT&T's Bell Labs, resulting in a Nobel Prize. Now those days are gone.
Even in applied fields, such as materials science and computer science, companies now understand that basic research is a form of charity—so they avoid it. Scientists at Bell Labs created the transistor, but that invention earned billions for Intel (and Microsoft). Engineers at Xerox PARC invented the modern graphical user interface, although Apple (and Microsoft) profited the most. IBM researchers pioneered the use of giant magnetoresistance to boost hard-disk capacity but soon lost the disk-drive business to Seagate and Western Digital.
When I created Microsoft Research, one of the largest industrial research labs founded in a generation, Bill Gates and I were very clear that basic research was not our mission. We knew that unless our researchers focused narrowly on innovations we could turn into revenues quickly, we wouldn't be able to justify the R&D budget to our investors. The business logic at work here has not changed. Those who believe profit-driven companies will altruistically pay for basic science that has wide-ranging benefits—but mostly to others and not for a generation—are naive.
If government were to leave it to the private sector to pay for basic research, most science would come to a screeching halt. What research survived would be done largely in secret, for fear of handing the next big thing to a rival. In that situation, Einstein might never have felt the need to finish his greatest work.
Einsteins are few and far between. But we don't have to wait for a rare genius as long as we stoke the competitive instincts of the smartest people around and persuade them to share their discoveries, in exchange for a shot at glory and riches.