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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

The real mother of invention
January 25, 2010 - 8:39pm

No, not Frank Zappa. Well, maybe Zappa, too, but that's not what I meant.

What I meant was perceived necessity. Not necessity proper, but the perception of it.

If a need is real but no one recognizes it, no invention is stimulated. If a need is imaginary but perceived, invention is likely to occur. It's not the necessity, it's the perception.

Why does that matter? Well, in a recent report from the National Science Board, it was noted that the dominance of US science and engineering is slipping. Not so much that we've gotten worse, but that the rest of the world is catching up.

Part of the reason, I'm sure, is just the maturation of post-secondary science and technology education in the rest of the world. The Indian Institute of Technology, to take a familiar example, is world-class -- it provides better technical education than was available anywhere outside of North America and western Europe only a decade ago. Several Chinese universities aren't far behind. As economic power shifts to Asia, higher education naturally follows. No surprise there, and nothing much to be done about it.

But part of the reason is also that governments and markets outside the USA perceive a number of necessities to which the US government and market accord only grudging acknowledgment. In a nutshell, they take climate change seriously. We don't. We're too wrapped up in life-and-death struggles about the nature of health care finance and other weighty matters. Climate change is, in practical terms, off our national radar screens.

So the other nations of the world perceive a necessity we don't. And they're addressing it, even as we speak. China, for instance, is outstripping the USA as a producer of renewable energy technology. They'll likely outstrip us as a market for renewable energy technology. And they'll make a lot of money (even more than currently) as a result. Worse, China is only one example.

I've long suspected that the US plan for addressing the climate change issue was to wait until it became an immediate crisis, because there's more profit in solving a crisis than in averting one. The flaw in that plan, of course, is that if someone else starts building the solution first, and in larger quantities, then the large profit margins you were hoping for either never eventuate or end up in someone else's bank account.

Or, to paraphrase my inventive mother, be careful what you wish against because someone else might get it.


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