Comments Concerning Small-
and Mid-Sized Research And Development
Facilities, And Related Matters
Concerning research and
development in science and technology, it has been a widely-held
opinion at least since the 1920s that the era of the small shop is over. Certainly in this period,
most of the money has been spent by large corporations, universities and government agencies.
Even so, the opinion has never been entirely accurate. There have continued to be significant
research and development efforts by smaller organizations. Even in the 1950s, when
“organization man” ideology was at its height of overt promotion, smaller organizations
continued to play an essential role in research and development.
There are two separate issues intertwined here.
First, the degree of financial autonomy
of a particular organization. The number and/or relative
influence of financially independent small- and mid-sized research and development
organizations probably did reach a low point in the 1950s, and has increased since, at an
Second, the degree of rights and
knowledge-base autonomy of a particular organization. People
involved in research and development might be considered a community, or herd, or cultural
organism, with connections of control and influence. A typical pattern might be for government
to fund basic research at a university, this research then being licensed or used subject to varying
degrees of security and other restrictions by financially autonomous organizations. “It has been
estimated that the companies spun out from just one university, the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT) would constitute a nation with the twenty-fourth largest GDP in the world”
(Schramm, Foreign Affairs 83-4 p110). A professor might wear two hats, doing government-
funded research and then participating in the founding of a company using that research. Such a
financially autonomous company would be less autonomous in the area of rights and knowledge-
base than a company with the same degree of financial autonomy that did its own basic research.
Of course neither of the above issues
are typically either-or. It is a complex organic process, and
as always through centuries of research and development, people build achievements upon the
achievements of others. Galileo was well-schooled in a centuries-old tradition of research into
mechanics, and considered his research to be part of that process.
Nobody sued Galileo for using inclined
planes without permission. Many today are concerned
that lines of control, enforced by lawyers, are fencing too much of the commons of human
thought, that too much of this fencing can impede and even freeze progress. Maybe next week
someone will trademark the number “3,” and charge a royalty for its use. This fencing of the
commons is a serious concern, and a balance must be achieved between private property rights
and the public commons.
As I review the past few decades,
I believe the trend has been toward increasing financial
autonomy and also increasing rights and knowledge-base autonomy. Assuming the public
commons problem is addressed adequately, this trend can only continue and accelerate. This
seems true in terms of legal structure and also in terms of substantive, on-the-ground reality.
Concerning the latter, a particular organization might pay lip-service to strings of knowledge-
base control, but in fact choose to exceed somewhat or even ignore the bounds. With so much
going on, particular lines of control going back through a university to a particular government
agency are tending to be audited and enforced more and more selectively, for example in those
cases where enough people make a fuss or some lawyer smells gold. Government agencies,
particularly the intelligence and military agencies, like to think of themselves as custodians and
managers of initiative. In fact, they do a partially comprehensive and partially effective job of this
at most. I have never chatted with anyone at DARPA, for example, but I expect sometimes they
must feel like a flea trying to manage an elephant. Even the most competent and well-intentioned
bureaucrat must work within budget, must select one case file from many for detailed attention,
and hope for the best.
All this considered, I believe we
are moving into an era of increasing autonomy, in which the
small- and mid-sized shop, and also the as-necessary flexible and changing cooperation between
such organizations, will be perhaps even the main realm of human endeavor, as almost always
throughout human history before the current batch of large organizations developed over the past
couple of centuries. As I discuss at the end of this paper, I want to participate in the process.
Are the large organizations which
we take for granted today, such as the Fortune 500, dinosaurs
thrashing in the tar pit, headed for extinction? That’s probably simplistic. But it cannot be denied
that the relative unresponsiveness so characteristic of large organizations tends to be an
advantage only in periods and/or niches of stability and predictability.
Those who lived through the many
decades of the scientific, technical and resulting social effects
of the industrial revolution, say 1810-1920, often described the situation as chaotic, rapid. The
period since 1950 or so has seen considerable scientific and technical progress to be sure, but this
progress has tended to be in certain areas. Other areas have not progressed as much. “Hot” areas
such as information management or biotech have been so in response to need, and also as the
result of targeted funding decisions by government agencies such as DARPA and other
organizations that allocate money. Some observers express suspicion and even paranoia
concerning the latter. But I am very much of the opinion that government must be involved to
some degree in the timing and targeting of research and development, that one might even
consider this function to be one of very most essential functions of government. I prefer that this
function be made subject as much as possible to the processes of representative government, and
I grant that a case perhaps can be made that things have been a bit too secretive and elitist in the
past few decades.
Looking beyond the hot areas, it
is my opinion that there are many other areas of research and
development in which the past few decades have been more an era of consolidation, refinement,
improvement. The jet engines in the airplanes of today are really not that much different from
those of the 1950s. The electrical generators in those giant plants and dams are not that much
different from those of the 1920s. Perhaps quieter, somewhat more efficient, more durable, less
harmful to the ecosystem, careers spent on such improvements. But still pretty much the same.
Take a look at the recent MIT catalog: nice, comfortable categories, all well defined, worked out
over the past few decades. Plenty of good, important work to be done in those niches by brilliant,
dedicated, competent people. However, as one strives to attain a broader view, it looks as though
there have been few or even no developments on the magnitude of raw-food-to-cooked-food,
horse-to-train or mail-to-telegraph in many of these areas for a long time. Some claim that
revolutionary developments have been stifled by threatened economic interests and so forth.
Perhaps, but a lot of it is simply the human tendency toward inertia, toward letting things be if
they work more or less ok. Such and such a technology might be not the best it could be, or in
that broader sense the most appropriate technology. But it might have achieved the level of
adequate, of good enough Change is risky, scary, and there are plenty of other areas to work on.
I think this plateau-situation is
changing. I think we are on the cusp of an era of rapid scientific,
technical developments. Along with continued and accelerating progress in areas considered hot
at present, there will be development in areas that have been considered mature technologies, and
related areas that may not at present have a lot of money and people involved. The pace, variety
and volume of these developments may well be beyond the capacity of government agencies and
other powerful economic interests to channel and manage at all effectively. A flowering, a
blossoming, an explosion of science and technology, with the resulting social changes, that will
make the frenzied early decades of the industrial revolution look like a turtle race.
Along with this is the continuing
probability, high, in my opinion, of financial and systemic
catastrophe. This would favor, and in fact force, rough-and-ready local responses to local
circumstances. I think it quite possible the whole array of giant organizations such as
corporations and nations could vanish, literally, in an afternoon of default. They, or bits and
pieces of them, might kick and thrash dangerously for a few years in their death throes, however.
And some of these bits and pieces might re-combine into who knows what, and interact who
knows how with more local efforts.
I see therefore two possible scenarios.
First, things might continue to lurch along economically. If
so, scientific and technological advances will overhaul and restructure human civilization.
Second, things may fall apart economically. But even in such an environment of economic and
social chaos, I think scientific and technological advances will roar ahead, and will overhaul and
restructure human civilization. In the second case, death rates are likely to be higher, and the
average size of organizations smaller. Quite a bit smaller. An R&D facility involving mere
hundreds of people may in such an environment be considered large.
Challenging rapids ahead, is the
way I see it. And certainly a major aspect of this avalanche of
change will be the increasing capacity of individuals and smaller groups to do greater harm using
more advanced technologies.
If the human race is survive the
next few centuries, we must, as a matter of the highest possible
priority, give attention to the interaction between research and development on one hand, and
character development on the other. In other words, jerks simply must not be permitted to work
in certain areas. It is a matter of life and death. Not to address this matter places in question the
survival of humanity, of all DNA-based life, even the existence of the planet itself.
The development of nuclear
weapons is a cautionary example. We did not give sufficient
attention to the above issue of character, and as a result we have come oh so close to killing
ourselves. And in my opinion we are on the verge of developments that will make nuclear
weapons look like firecrackers. Just think of the swirling together of biotech, nanotech, and
infotech. Just think of all those staples of science fiction (free energy, inertialess travel, gravity
management including artificial gravity environments and so-called “anti-gravity,” quantum
weapons, quantum computing, force fields, beam weapons, developments in materials science
such as tougher materials, materials with capacities for self-repair and self-organization, you
name it) coming to a neighborhood near you. Impossible! Yeah right. Just a few lifetimes ago
most everyone thought the same about flight, or dozens of other developments we take for
These new buzz areas of physics and technology will tend to be roared into by the type of guy,
often it will be guys, who like to blow things up, to make large things and crash them into each
other. We simply must make an intentional effort to make sure at least some people moving into
these fields are trying also to develop into better human beings, to be well-rounded, decent,
moderate, tactful, responsible, caring about others and the ecosystem. I repeat, the matter of
character is a matter of life and death. To those who say it’s just human nature and human history
that jerks always flow toward the money, power, buzz, I say we must change this Therefore we
must figure out how to do so.
Almost any current advanced text
on waves, electricity, fluids, basic forces such as gravity, many
other areas, will admit that we just don’t know very much as yet. Science has tended the past few
centuries to focus on what happens, and only now is venturing more seriously into why it
happens (sure, inertia happens, but why does it happen ... what is it?). Equations tend to be
adjusted to fit observation, with fudge factors built in. An example might be behavior of fluids
under conditions of high pressure and temperature. Heck, the very best of modern science has
tried without success to explain the propellor cavitation of any outboard motor! You see
somebody out there on the lake putting along, and you’re looking at one of the giant
unexplainable mysteries of science. They just put up a sign decades ago saying, “Beyond this
point there be dragons,” and that’s where it has been ever since. One does not have to be X-Files
paranoid to see the powerful tendency toward conservatism, even rigidity here. The idea that
there just might sometimes be more energy coming out of a cavitation area than went into it is so
profoundly, profoundly, profoundly offensive to the trained engineering mind! So let’s all just
work on something else. It’s truly amazing how many fields of science exhibit this same pattern.
But like it or not, and it’s
safe to say the vast majority of people earning dough in such fields
most definitely do not like it, there is, for lack of a better term, a theoretical framework slowly,
even grudgingly being crafted, and this is opening doors into areas that look vast, really vast
indeed. This might be similar to electricity just before the experiments of Franklin. Similar, but
with ramifications several magnitudes greater, I think. What, you say? Electricity overhauled our
society from top to bottom! Yes, greater. If electricity was the hill in the backyard, this will be a
vast mountain range.
I think further progress will require
us to continue to value the benefits of experimentation,
observation, hypotheses, replication, factoring out &/or holding static variables except for those
variables of interest, separation of experimenter from experimented-upon. But as well we must
develop our intuitive, direct-perception and participatory capacities. Beyond a point, trying to
solve multiple-variable problems with brute-force supercomputing is much like the Mad Hatter’s
tea party in Alice In Wonderland: they try to fix a watch by slathering it with butter, and it still
doesn’t work, even though it was the best butter. Beyond a point, separation of experimenter
from experimented-upon leads to the sort of experiments performed in the Nazi death camps.
I think we need to admit frankly,
and develop appropriately as a package of useful tools, our
innate capacities described above, develop our innate capacities for optimization and critical path
These capacities might be considered
something similar to a soap bubble’s natural tendency to
optimize surface area. From one perspective, this development might be hard work. From
another it might be as easy as falling off a log, as easy as recognizing and using common sense. It
is from these realms of capacities-to-be-developed that such concepts as “gift” and “ethical
I think we must do this work, or
the human race will perish. Our species stands at the crossroads.
True, a third alternative is collapse into a dark age, but in this case we will face the very same
crossroads eventually, down the road several centuries. As the song goes, we will have to “keep
doing it wrong until we get it right,” on the optimistic assumption that we don’t wipe ourselves
out entirely. I think it is best to admit frankly and deal with the matter now, doing so as a central
concern of our civilization.
But admitting the value, even the
necessity of intuition-related capacities requires us to address
the matter of hucksterism.
The American Medical Association,
for example, hunkered down in the cold, limited, even
crippled comfort of replication decades ago, because the hucksterism component was so
pervasive and toxic in medicine. And yet any good doctor, as any good professional in practically
any field, will have that experience of “just knowing” what is wrong with a patient, and then will
do the observation and tests to verify this knowing. I do not know just how we can respect and
develop this absolutely essential part of us without the infestation of hucksterism, of greed not
managed. I just know that we must do so, the alternative being, again, the extinction of humanity.
We need to be able to say to a particular person, gee, I’m sorry, but the consensus (which we
must assume by some insert-miracle-here process does somehow manage to reflect the truth, the
reality) is that you are not sufficiently developed in character to be permitted to work in such and
such an area of research, development, implementation or use. Because you are a jerk. Or a
And yet even if we can separate out
legitimate self-interest from greed past legitimate self
interest, and seek the former and do the work necessary to forego the latter, there might still be
differing views of this “just knowing.” This is a conundrum, a challenge! We must solve it or
perish, I think. One can imagine a civilization in which everyone simply does the right thing, in
some kind of harmonious symphony, but we’re not there yet. And toward what goals does this
symphony direct, and by what standards, selected by whom in this universe that seems so
relative? Protect the sparrow and you harm the hawk. And there could even be a danger in that
kind of close harmony somewhat similar to the dangers of mono-culture in agriculture. Still, we
must make progress in these matters! We must. The alternatives are extinction or at best
To date the best we’ve done
is the rough-and-tumble political process, in which different
opinions compete, compromise. From here we need, within this process, to become more
competent at separating legitimate need from excessive greed, and shunting aside the influence of
the latter. One does see this sort of improvement happening worldwide. Yes, the U.S. Congress is
quite corrupt, but I think any fair reading of history would agree that it is just a little tiny tad
slightly less corrupt than previously, and that the trend has been positive, slightly. The recent and
increasing worldwide focus on corruption in politics is another fine example.
I think next will be progress in
applying our intuition or “just knowing” to multi-variable
scenarios, including scientific and technological scenarios, that have political and financial
aspects. For example, I hope it will not be that long before we consider the overall effects on us
and the ecosystem of the soup of human-made chemicals within which we live, as part of the
approval process for the manufacture and use of any given chemical. We will do this because
most of us “just know” that to do otherwise is stupid and destructive, and this “just knowing,”
aka common sense, will have more and more actual political effect.
What it really comes down to is people
choosing to behave properly, even when they are not
being forced to do so. Teachers have recommended this for many centuries, but now it is more
and more obvious life is on the line. Learn how to treat decently each other and the ecosystem,
and commit seriously, substantively to doing so, or die. Philosophy with a bite, as it were.
Contributing to this positive trend
will be the simple necessity of doing so, I think, in order to
show safe progress, or perhaps any kind of progress at all, in certain key areas of science and
technology. Take for example a number of areas related to flows, fluids, electrical and magnetic
forces, areas of considerable interest to me. I think it is quite likely that progress is more likely to
be made by people and groups who educate themselves in such areas as geometry or topology, or
who develop their skills in such areas as cat’s cradle, or gardening, or the gathering portion of
hunting and gathering. Gathering, for example, requires the participatory management of
multiple variables, with life and death on the line if the gatherer does not bring home enough
calories. Some of these areas of work and knowledge might be described as traditional womens’
skills. But I do not like to put it that way. I think more in terms of the responsibility of both men
and women to become fully-developed and well-integrated human beings. And to do so as a
necessary part of achieving certain types of knowledge, certain goals. What if it turns out that
only nice people can perform navigation or captaincy functions in a faster-than-light
environment? Pretty outrageous concept! Unless it turns out to be true.
The "boys with toys" problem
referred to earlier, that permeated the development of nuclear
weapons, just about got us all killed. It reflects a bias toward unbalanced, specialized
development in our society. Too often people end up highly developed in specialist areas, yet
lacking or even crippled in other important social, perceptual, cognitive and skills areas. There's a
humorous but telling anecdote about Paul Dirac, one of the greatest of the early theoretical
physicists. He was chatting at the home of one of his colleagues, while the wife of this colleague
sat nearby knitting. A couple of hours after Dirac left, he came rushing back, all excited, saying
that he had been considering the topological aspects of her knitting, which he had been watching.
He announced there was a whole different way to make the knots! He tried to demonstrate, and
the woman let him know that this other knot was called purling, and had been done for centuries.
By women mostly, is the point. And this does not even address the question of whether or not
theoretical physics as presently constituted is simply the ancient Cult of Isis in new clothing, with
relativity and quantum mechanics each performing the function of attractive tar-baby.
To navigate successfully the next
several decades, we must emphasize more balanced human
development, with an emphasis on character, while at the same time encouraging the necessary
degree of specialist development. The idea is to have reasonably happy, well-integrated human
beings who happen to produce great achievements, rather than social cripples whose only focus
in life is specialist achievement. Maybe an excessive emphasis on specialist development has
produced significant achievements in the past few centuries, but a lot of the low-hanging fruit is
now picked. Broader human development will tend to encourage the making of connections
between different areas, and it is this sort of connecting that will be an essential part of much of
the developments of the next few centuries.
Whether or not we address this matter
of broad, well-integrated human development
competently, and thus reduce the likelihood of extinction, or at best catastrophe, I think there is
no doubt we are on the verge of an avalanche of scientific and technical developments. That’s
what is coming next. Like it or not, and whether we handle it well or not. That’s the way I see it.
I want to participate.
I intend to manage my health and
aim for mental and physical quality of life >= age 100. In this
45 years plus from now (I am 55), I intend to build a net worth of >$50 million current
equivalent, commit approx $1million of this to a moderate comfortable lifestyle, and the rest to
building a research and development facility.
I admitted years ago that I am not
the brightest lightbulb in the elevator. Yes, I have shown that I
can become quite good in particular fields. For example, it turns out, alas, that I am a very good
accountant, sob. And I am a very good software programmer, a curious combination of art and
craft. But mainly I think I have high levels of two God-given talents that are needed but not
necessarily directly valued in our specialized society. First, the ability to select what is valuable
from a collection. Second, the ability to become adequately competent in a variety of areas. I can
build a more-or-less-ok house. I can play the piano more-or-less ok. If it sounds like a
contradiction to be a specialist at integration, synthesis, at being a generalist, so be it.
Our society tends not to encourage
such varied, broad development of capacities and interests,
and tends to reward specialization or even over-specialization. Those few people who click on
this, and who take steps to provide for themselves such varied development, while making sure
they still earn an adequate living, of course, end up happier, more alive, and often end up running
things. They end up providing direction and management to people who whose knowledge and
competence is more developed in more narrow areas. That’s what I intend to do. I intend myself
to acquire at least for-dummies competence in a variety of mathematical, scientific and technical
areas. Then I will be able to communicate with and manage employees who are smarter than me
and more competent in specific areas, and direct their efforts toward specific goals.
One of these specific goals is to
visit and do an initial survey of the Alpha Centauri system, and
return safely. This system is made up of 2 stars with an outlying star (some say all 3 form a
mutually-orbiting system). It would be great if there were planets also, but that is as yet to be
determined. These stars making up the Alpha Centauri system are the stars closest to our solar
system. Based on current assumptions, light takes about 4.3 years to travel between that system
and ours. If you draw a little map of our solar system with the sun in the center and the earth 1
inch away from the sun, the planet Jupiter would be about 6 inches from the sun, and Pluto
would be about 40 inches from the sun. On this same scale, the two main Alpha Centauri system
stars would be about 4.4 miles away. There are a number of technical challenges to address
before such a voyage.
A decent library is an essential
component of the research and development facility I have in
mind. I have done preliminary organizational work and begun what I believe is a well-crafted
program of acquisition. I estimate $350,000-400,000 needed to build the most basic, rudimentary
collection, items only, not including the facility itself. So anybody who wants to buy Jerry a gift,
well I’ve already got plenty of stuff. I’ve got a nice little house and barn packed with stuff. It’s
specific books I want. And later subscriptions to specific journals and association article
databases, with related print-out costs. Just let me know and I’ll give you a list of essential books,
or go to www.cfprpub.com and click link to acquisitions priority list.htm.
That’s the plan. A grand enterprise!
It could fail or end up modified by circumstances. For
example, it might be hard to come up with $50 million if everyone has gone broke in a financial
collapse. So what. You pick a reasonable package of goals, some of which are grand, and then
you do the best you can. It works, or it doesn’t work, or it works partially, or in ways one never
anticipated. In this case, every part of the package from here to there looks enjoyable,
educational, with the possibility of adequate dough, with the possibility of contributing to society
and the ecosystem, and being involved with interesting people and organizations. Comments?