Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

. Investment In Applied Science

A question for the reader to contemplate before: what is the primary objective of an investment in a technology development? My answer is below.
 
It is now my intention to run a small series of blogs on investment in scientific development, using biofuels as an example. The reader might like to participate by deciding which, if any, technology they would invest in if they had the money, and more importantly, why choose that? An important additional consideration is this: if nobody invests, and if there is no development such as fusion power and fuel cells, people had better get used to walking.
 
Returning to the question, the answer is clear: to make money. That should be the only primary objective. Now I guess a number of readers will object to that, so I shall explain.
 
Businesses, in a competitive environment, are in a Darwinian environment. It should also be made clear that a common explanation of Darwinian evolution, namely Survival of the fittest, is just plain wrong. It should be: Survival of the adequate to occupy continually a niche. Perhaps as an example, I might point to the red algal genus Bangia, an alga that sits at the top of the intertidal splash zone. In terms of how cells may be arranged in multicellular forms, this is a one-dimensional, i.e  the cells are in a single line. There are a number of other algae that can occupy a similar zone, such as the two-dimensional Porphyra, so it is not even the fittest in this rather limited niche, but it must be adequate because a fossil that appears indistinguishable from modern Bangia has been found that appears to be 1.3 Gy old.
 
To be adequate, life forms must feed and reproduce. Businesses simply feed; if their income does not exceed their outgoings, they do not last long. There is no point in devising the most desirable widget or health product if your business is wound up. Amongst other outcomes, no product is then made, so there is no benefit from it.  Of course a desirable product is more likely to sell, hence with any reasonable management the company thrives. A good product may be necessary, but nevertheless the profit is critical.
 
For a biofuels company to succeed, income is dependent on the fuels being sold at the required price, and the market determines price.  As oil demand exceeds supply, prices will rise, but the question is, by how much? One question that must be faced is the price/demand elasticity, i.e. how much is demand affected by increased price. At first sight, judging by certain governments' taxation policies, not much, but unfortunately there is no time symmetry in economics: what works today may not work tomorrow. As the price of fuel rises, as opposed to the price of discretionary petrol, the price of everything else with a fuel content rises. Wages could keep up, if you desire hyperinflation, but if money is to have any meaning, you have to assume wages, if anything, will decline unless there are serious productivity improvements. In this context, I have seen figures that the pound sterling has inflated by a factor of over 650 in the last ninety years, so maybe more significant inflation is on the horizon. "Quantitative easing" is certainly little different from "printing money".
 
Notwithstanding that, the rich will probably buy fuel at any price. What the social consequences of that are is anyone's guess, but the implication is that if we want a future that bears any resemblance to what we have now, a significant volume of new transport fuel is required, which means that someone has to invest in a technology for which there is a significant resource, and the technology has to be reasonably cheap to implement. That, however, does not exclude niche supplies. The fact is, the market can never be saturated in the foreseeable future with biofuel.
 
So, where would you, the reader, place your money?
Posted by Ian Miller on Nov 22, 2011 8:07 PM Europe/London

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