Fifty years ago, with the Moon reached, Project Apollo was being wound down. Certainly the cost had been enormous (though as nothing compared to the Vietnam war, the financial bailout of 2008, and the daddy of them all the Iraq-Afghanistan campaign from 2003 onwards. We remember an argument we sometimes heard at the time. “Why spend all that money going to the Moon, when there are so many poor people who need help on Earth?” It is a decent and moral argument, and we admit that some of us struggled with it back in ’71. The only spin-off from Apollo was non-stick frying pans. Why indeed give money to slightly nerdy science types to play with, when there are hungry, diseased children out there?
Professor Mariana Mazzucato has an interesting reply. She quotes the following tale told by NASA administrator Ernst Stuhlinger to a nun who had raised that very question. We quote from Mazzucato’s book Mission Economy*
Stuhlinger asked the nun to first consider the story of a benign and much-loved count who lived in Germany 400 years ago. The count was always redistributing his riches to the poor. But he did more than redistribute; he created. The count funded the scientific activities of a strange local man who worked in a small laboratory grinding lenses from glass, and then mounting the lenses in in tubes and creating small gadgets. The count was criticised for wasting money on the craftsman when the needs of the hungry were so much greater. And yet, explained Stuhlinger, it was precisely such experiments that later paved the way for the invention of the microscope, which proved one of the most useful devices for fighting disease, poverty and hunger. The Count, by retaining some of his spending money for research and discovery, contributed far more to the relief of human suffering than…by giving all he could possibly spare to his plague-ridden community. (p79)
Fast forward to 1961. The Count is President John F. Kennedy. The researcher is the Apollo programme. Instead of a microscope, we got CAT scans, LEDs, scratch resistant lenses, memory foam, the computer mouse, laptop computers, the resistant foam in your trainers, MRIs, solar panels, water purification, defibrillators, pacemakers and many more examples of what Mazzucato terms “economic multipliers”. An inflexible emphasis on budget sheets, or endless importuning for immediate welfare spending would have killed all this. So both Right and Left can blush in shame!
We’ve said it before-research spending pays incalculable dividends. If you don’t believe us, at least give good Professor Mazzucato a try-she’s worth it.
Mariana Mazzucato Mission Economy Allen Lane 2021
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