Sunday, 3 February 2019

Do the innovation enthusiasts at UCL want the UK to send someone to Mars?

The University College London Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) are pushing what they call “mission orientation”. That’s the idea that many of the technological advances over the last century or so have stemmed from grandiose and totally uneconomic projects which, by way of compensation for the vast amounts of money spent, have at least yielded some technological spin offs. Examples include President Kennedy’s Moon shot, the main purpose of which was to get one up on the Russians. Also of course, numerous military projects (where money is almost no object) have yielded spin offs.

Therefore, so the IIPP argument goes, we need to dream up specific “missions” like sending people to Mars or whatever, so as to benefit from yet more spin offs. The above IIPP folk are led by Mariana Mazzucato.

Indeed, there’s a picture of the Space Shuttle at the top of one of Mazzucato’s articles.


Plus IIPP are advertising for a space specialist to advise them on which space missions would be best with a view to bankrupting the UK (forgive my sarcasm).


The first obvious flaw in the mission orientation idea is that while some missions have brought significant benefits, others have not. For example trying to fly people across the Atlantic at supersonic speed is a great “mission”. Trouble was that Concorde turned out to be a commercial flop: it cost taxpayers hundreds of millions.

Nuclear power stations have also totally failed to live up to their initial promise.

Another flaw is that while “missions” like the Moon shot obviously result in spin offs, it is not at all obvious that those sort of multi billion dollar spectaculars are an EFFICIENT way of producing technological advances. That is, there is a huge amount of research which DOES NOT have any particular billion dollar missions in mind which ALSO produces benefits.

Indeed, it is very debatable as to whether much importance should be attached to improvements in rocketry that stemmed from the Moon shot, because it was obvious around seventy years ago that weather satellites and communication satellites would bring big benefits. Thus there was a motive to improve rocket technology ANYWAY. 

Ironically, there’s a technological advance which Mazzucato loves to quote which is a classic example of the benefits of what might be called the “non mission” approach. That is, as she rightly says over and over, the various technological advances that have made smart phones possible have come about as a result of dozens of INDIVIDUAL government funded research projects (e.g. into making silicone chips faster and smaller), and NOT AS A RESULT of a “mission” in the form of “let’s have smart phones on which we can look at videos in 20 years time”.

Another spectacular piece of false logic repeated over and over in IIPP material is the idea that because a mission orientation approach is needed to deal with climate change, that that somehow supports the case for the mission orientation approach. I would expect the average Daily Mail reader to be able see the flaw in that argument. But for the benefit of those who can’t, the flaw is as follows.

Climate change is a totally unique event in the history of mankind: it is a once in a hundred thousand year event, or perhaps a once in a million year event: that is, the human race is having a damaging effect on the climate which can only be rectified by spending VERY LARGE amounts of money. Plus the benefits of doing that are obvious and large: avoiding climate catastrophe.

To claim that therefor spending very large amounts of money on projects where the benefits are not all that clear will bring similar benefits is just glorified false logic.

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