Microsoft's war cry for science investment
Oct 23, 1998
"A technological company that expects to survive and thrive decades hence is losing money and opportunity if it does not have long-range research programs." That is the verdict of Nathan Myhrvold, the theoretical physicist who is chief technology officer at Microsoft, writing in Science this week. Myhrvold, who is in charge of its $3 billion research budget, goes on to write that a research proposal that is easily understandable by a funding official is probably not worth doing as basic research. And governments and companies, he argues, should attempt to diversify basic research into as many areas as possible to increase the chances of discovering something new.
Myhrvold confirms the link between basic research and profit by pointing out that technology companies founded in the last 30 years that rely on basic research carried out since the second World War now have a market value of over a trillion dollars. He also criticizes certain "misconceptions" that exist about long-term research in industry. For example, he writes, although Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center is often considered a failure because the company failed to capitalise on the invention of the graphical user interface at the Palo Alto lab, profits from laser printers - also discovered there - have more than covered the cost of research at the company.
"There is no useless research"
Myhrvold is most worried the decreasing investment by both industrial companies and governments in high-risk basic research. Governments in particular, he says, "should consider longer time scales [50-100 years] and make investments accordingly. Even the most hard-nosed politician should realize that supporting science makes money and brings very tangible non-monetary benefits."