Sinclair Davidson had a piece in the Fin the other day, attacking the Australian Research Council, which pays my salary (Davidson also gets ARC Grant Money, as he notes). The argument turns, not on specific deficiencies of the ARC but on the general claim that pure research undertaken with government funding has little economic benefit. In the good old days, when confronted with this sort of claim, we research types would wheel out a few trusty examples like cactoblastis and ENIAC, but they’re getting a bit old and tired nowadays.
I remember talking about this a decade or so ago, and somebody said the universities were developing this great new communications system that would revolutionise the economy. What was it called? Interweb? WorldWideNet? Mosaica? Can anyone remember what happened to it? If someone could find any evidence that this idea had an economic impact, it might help to counter Sinclair’s argument.
To be serious, although the early development of ARPANet was funded by specific grants on the ARC model (in this case from the US Department of Defence), and the same was true of some aspects of the Internet in other countries, most of the development of the Internet was not the result of targeted funding but the outcome of all sorts of spare time activities and voluntary contributions, reflecting the general belief among academics that free interchange of information is a Good Thing. Still, this doesn’t seem to help Davidson’s argument, since he wants tighter political controls over research funding and (I presume) more of the kinds of market pressures that discourage any activity that doesn’t contribute directly to a university bottom line. The development of the Internet was just such an activity, and it came, almost entirely out of publicly funded research institutions
fn1. The one important exception was Unix which came out of Bell Labs, the kind of quasi-public institution that flourished in the US corporate sector before the days of shareholder value.