Think ahead:
A plea has been made (William H. Press Investing in Distant Rewards SCIENCE vol. 339 no. 6120 February 8, 2013 page 627) by the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that science should be exempt from the usual way of accounting for investments.  Usually when you make an investment (assuming the investment is simply for the purpose of personal gain rather than some more idealistic motivation) you expect to get or at least begin to get a reasonable return on that investment in the relatively near future. 

Make an investment that returns 3.5% annually (you lucky rascal) and expect to reinvest your money at that rate in the foreseeable future.  You can expect to double your money in 20 years or so, barring fees, taxes, inflation and risks.  That’s rather a long time.  If you are lucky enough to start putting money away in your thirties, then maybe you will have quadrupled your return be the time you are retired and in your seventies.  Given the reality of the discounting factors, you are lucky to break even at the end of the day, of course.  Prudence would suggest that if you expect to retire at age 65 and live to be 100, then from age thirty five you need to save half of your pre tax income for thirty years and then continue living at the same standard right on to 95; then beg.  Scrimping and mortality are the old person’s friends. 

I have a small terra cotta figurine of a woman.  It was made thousands of years ago.  It was probably mass produced.  That required use of space, buying raw materials, labor and a kiln.  The whole operation could not have required less than a thousand dollars in current value.  Obviously over the long haul interest rates are essentially zero.  .7 % interest should have doubled every 100 years or 10 times a millennium.  That thousand would be worth a million in a thousand years, a billion in two thousand years, a trillion in three thousand years, quadrillion in four thousand years.  There are still thousands of years to go, and that was by no means the only workshop in the world but one of untold thousands.  Real interest rates are almost zero in the long run. 

It is against such factors that Press asserts that science is still worth paying for.  Well, it’s kind of his job.  “Advancement” of science has to include paying for it. 

And indeed it can be argued that science and technology are really the only things that can raise productivity, to provide at least a theoretical or even temporary but real rise in social wellbeing.  I expect it will be a very long time before such things as atom smashing, space exploration or astronomy beyond the solar system make us much richer.  The human genome project has failed rather spectacularly in its promise to give us customized medicine with the prevention of the diseases of aging.  Maybe tomorrow. 

But science is a noble pursuit.  Art can be noble, too, but publicly funded art takes a lot of criticism.  What one person finds ennobling another may find ghastly.  I think preservation of the past – art, literature and artifacts as well as a functioning wild environment – should be listed among the generally noble efforts well worth public funding. 

Press’s argument is the Big Break Through, the discovery just around the corner that will be our new penicillin, our new steam engine, our new automobile, our new telephone.  Maybe he’s right.  He says he has sound mathematics on his side.  Of course it will only be clear after the fact.

Practically his first gambit is to suggest that although people may sacrifice for their children and grandchildren, whom they probably know, they are unlikely to sacrifice for their great-great-great-great grandchildren, whom they can never know.  I’m sorry to bring up the fact that the weight of the evidence already suggests that the fertility of ones great grandchildren is profoundly affected by ones mating choice.  That was the Swedish study I cited in the December 21 posting last year.  Less direct evidence suggests that the thrice great grand children will be more impacted, and there might not be much to worry about beyond that.  An unfortunate choice now would mean that there won’t be any such. 

Of course the crisis is already on us.  We pay the penalty for choices made before we were born by people we never knew.  Maybe we can still save much of what we now revel in, but at the end of the day we simply must take the long view if we are to have a chance of surviving beyond the horizon of the future.

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