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?

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Can society live sustainably? That is a question addressed by David MacKay, a physicist, in "Sustainable Energy — without the hot air", (www.withouthotair.com for a free pdf download) and it is a book I would strongly recommend for reading by anyone interested in this topic. No, it does not, in my opinion anyway, give all the answers, but what it does is more important: the author sets out the way a physicist goes about finding them.  There are places where I disagree, e.g. I feel that too many of his "possible solutions" are somewhat optimistic because by his own admission, he has left out the economic issues. However, what it does is cut through a lot of the "hot air" then considers one very important issue: put numbers on your proposal. My second reservation about this is that the numbers have to be good. In my opinion qualifiers are needed, e.g. for tidal and wave power it is all very well to count up the miles of coastline; it is another thing to actually harvest the energy therein. What is great about it, however, is not the answers he provides, but the framework he provides and the methodology to get them. Read it and see for yourself.
 
Transport is a particularly difficult area. Perhaps because he is a physicist he focuses on electricity to power it, although he does accept that some liquid fuels will be required. These tend to be ethanol and biodiesel, and I shall try to show that this approach is not necessarily optimum in later posts. However, there is no doubt that electrification is optimal for major routes employing public transport. The undergrounds in London and Paris are, from experience, "must use" modes. One problem is that unfortunately the population explosion in the 20th century has led to cities that are too spread-out, e.g. Los Angeles, as well as smaller ones, such as, closer to home, Auckland. Why do commuters in these places not use public transport? Because the workplaces and the residences are scattered widely in a "salt and pepper" fashion. Without major city restructuring, individual transport is going to be required for some time yet, particularly as long as those in residences do not want to be "polluted" with nearby commerce.
 
This book promptly disposes of the hydrogen economy, at least for private transport (I think you have to work with hydrogen to appreciate how difficult leak prevention is) and mainly concentrates on batteries, but it does mention the zinc-air fuel cell. My own view is that more research effort should be put into metal-based fuel cells, but even then I suspect there will be a good place for biofuels. MacKay is correct that so far it is extremely unlikely that biofuels can ever solve the transport problem; it is simply not possible to make enough of them. Nevertheless, there will be some applications where they can contribute, and we may not have unlimited electricity either. As you may gather from my previous posts, I disagree with MacKay when he says municipal solid waste should be incinerated to provide electricity. Resources with carbon-carbon bonds have too much potential to provide liquid fuel. Now it is possible that the economics do not add up, but again, let us determine some accurate numbers for the options before we close them off.
 
After reading MacKay's book there is one almost inescapable fact: if society wants a lifestyle with any resemblance to the current one in fifty years, the numbers simply do not add up unless nuclear power (including the possibility of thorium reactors) is employed.
 
You don't agree? Then read the book and provide the numbers for an alternative scenario. For the one most important point MacKay makes is, arm-waving and adjectives simply do not help. Your theory of what we should do has to add up, and that requires numbers, and some simple mathematics.
Posted by Ian Miller on Mar 14, 2012 10:38 PM GMT
Recently I have been involved in a web-discussion hosted by the Royal Society of New Zealand on energy development. Since this is closed to members, I thought I should raise some of my points here. One of my concerns, which I raised in Elements of Theory is that modern science is not very good at reaching appropriate conclusions, i.e. we know not all that we know. I am not suggesting that conclusions of papers are not appropriate; internally most scientific papers are self-consistent and do not overlook much within their scope. (That does not mean the conclusions must be correct, but it does mean they are sensibly reached.) No, what concerns me is that they are not put in proper context. We may describe a leaf in minute detail and correctly assign its function to the tree, but the role of the tree in the wood may elude us.
 
I am choosing Range Fuels Inc as an example. According to Jim Lane, (Biofuels Digest, 5th December, 2011) Range Fuels received about $160 million in investor funding, and $162 million in government commitments, although not necessarily all drawn down. The process apparently involved gasification of biomass, the conversion to syngas, and the conversion of syngas to ethanol (plus some other alcohols) through its proprietary catalyst. The major funding was for a 40 million gallon per year plant, but once funding was achieved, it appears to have been reduced to a 4 million gallon per year plant, then it turned out that that would be only methanol for a while, and then, well, the influential people lost patience.
 
This raises some interesting questions. The first is, methanol technology from synthesis gas has been known since the early 1920s, so that should not have been a problem. There are many gasifiers available, and the water gas shift reaction is very well known. The making of a different alcohol mix apparently involves their proprietary catalyst, which should not change the plant, so the entire process from gasifier to alcohol-synthesis plant should have been essentially "off the shelf". So, what could go wrong?
 
My guess is project analysis. The first problem is scale. Syngas to alcohol or hydrocarbons usually involve massive plants because they need the economies of scale to be competitive. Biomass feedstock is not really well suited to processing in large-scale plants. It does not transport easily, and while the yield from an area appears to scale as the square of the radius from the plant, in practice it is closer to linear with distance travelled because the trucks have to follow roads. Gasification of biomass is not straightforward. Without appropriate care, too much water and carbon dioxide is made, while a carbon monoxide rich feed can also eventuate, which requires considerable scrubbing of CO2 and gas recycling from the water gas shift reaction. Gasification can waste a considerable amount of the available C/H, while to be economical, very large volumes of syngas are required. This simple fact, based on considerable operational experience of methanol and Fischer Tropsch processing, should have suggested this was a very bad idea.
 
This brings in what may be a really fundamental problem: those who have the funds were probably not sufficiently skilled to pick this up, and there has been no publicly available analysis to guide them. The issue is, $320 million still buys quite a bit. The object of a development problem is to locate the mistakes and things that will go wrong while everything is still cheap (or relatively cheap). It is one thing to take a risk, but success involves minimizing risk, and who knew what the risks were? I am far from convinced that society has the wealth to keep on throwing away these sorts of sums.
 
Interestingly, in early 2010, energy writer Robert Rapier wrote a stinging critique of Range Fuels funding, and noted that the decision to continue funding this very expensive project was at the expense of projects that were, perhaps, more deserving on technical grounds, but less vocal. This raises another hazard, as noted by Rapier: funding should not depend on the boldness of the claims or the loudness of the claimants. The problem is, how do we get things right?
Posted by Ian Miller on Feb 29, 2012 9:14 PM GMT

What is science about? Having a comfortable research area, churning out papers in a very narrow niche, and thus securing further funding? Or taking a risk, getting out of the comfort zone and trying to understand? I am going to propose an experiment that chemists could do that could verify (or not, as the case may be) a major issue in physics. My question is, has anyone got the nerve? First, some background.

 

When James Clerk Maxwell applied his fundamental equations of electrodynamics to  consider a pulse of electric field in a transverse wave form, his equations required a similar wave of magnetic field be generated at right angles, with a phase delay, and that wave, then proceeded to generate a new electric field wave. Further, with a little mathematics he showed that the speed of this composite wave depended on the reciprocal of the square root of the product of the permeability and permittivity of space, which was close to the speed of light as then measured. He therefore concluded that light was an electromagnetic wave. This was one of the great unification moments in our understanding of reality. Unfortunately, within about two decades, evidence indicated particle properties, and the photon was "born". Now everybody thinks they know what a photon is.
 

In Maxwell’s electrodynamics, the electromagnetic fields are short-range, that is, they behave as if a charged particle is continually sending out messages at the speed of light, thus making other charged particles aware that they are there. As far as I can make out, current thinking is that the charged particle sends out pulses of “field”, which then behave as above, i.e. the messenger for the electric field is the photon, but since we do not see it, it is a virtual photon. Quantum electrodynamics describes how the virtual particle is supposed to behave, and is outside the scope of this blog, but it accounts for a very restricted set of observations with incredible accuracy.
 

But does that mean the "virtual photon" is a genuine intermediate? What would provide a means of deciding? After all, the value of the scientific method must lie in determining an answer, not reciting accounts of that with which we have become comfortable. What appears to be required is an experiment that gives a result that requires the virtual photon, and cannot be readily explained by some other means. To devise such an experiment we need to define the properties of such a virtual photon. Either the virtual photon is equivalent in most ways to a real photon, or it is not. If it is not, we know nothing about its real nature and the name gives misleading comfort.  Theory is useless if any term can take any value "on demand" as it explains everything and predicts nothing. 
 

 What do we require?  It carries momentum (which leads to the force), it carries energy (because the field itself carries energy), and it interacts in the same way a real photon does. It is postulated to be transmitted because it has oscillating electromagnetic fields. One possible difference involves where the oscillations occur. If real photons oscillate in the x, y dimensions, it has been proposed that virtual ones oscillate in the z,t dimensions.
 

An oscillation in the z dimension involves motion exceeding the velocity of light, while oscillations in time permit negative momentum as the photon travels backwards in time, thus permitting attractive forces. To me, leaving aside the minor problem that length and time are dimensionally different, this has an element of desperation about it, nevertheless quantum electrodynamics has had remarkable success. However, there are further options that do not seem to have been investigated, such as the use of additional dimensions. The question now is, what helps us devise an experiment to demonstrate their existence?
 

We know that electric fields are attenuated by intervening materials; we describe the degree of attenuation as the dielectric constant, and this should indicate that the virtual photons are absorbed, for if they were not, they should progress and deliver the expected force without the intervening medium. This would appear to give a possible method for detecting them. Set up two plates in parallel and with equal electric charge (to avoid a potential gradient), and insert a solution with a molecule that fluoresces. The concept is, the virtual photon should have a certain probability of exciting the molecule, but when the absorber's excited state relaxes via fluorescence, it will emit a real photon, which is detectable.
 

A positive result is a triumph, however the negative one is more problematical, after all, there may be many reasons why a set is empty. Thus if the virtual photons have the wrong frequency, there is no excited state, and the theory does not specify their frequency. If frequency represents the number of photons in a ray, then adjusting the voltage should alter the frequency so there are, in principle possible variations. 
 

Understanding implies that when presented with a new situation, you can predict the outcome. Can you predict the outcome of this? If the experiment gives a positive result, a number of experiments follow that allow a good understanding of virtual photons, and probably fame and fortune result. The question is, what do you do with a negative result? My guess is, that will prevent anybody from trying, but if you could do it, and you cannot explain why it would not work under any circumstances before doing the experiment, do you really and truly believe in virtual photons? Of don't you care one way or the other?

Posted by Ian Miller on Feb 21, 2012 9:13 PM GMT
Previous comments have raised an important issue: land can only be used for one purpose at the same time. If you grow biofuel crops, you are not growing food. So, is the concept of biofuels doomed by the need for food? I do not think so, and I hope to convince some of you, although I must emphasize, biofuels could only ever provide some of our current transport requirements; it is most unlikely that we can get away without changing some of our habits. I am convinced there is no single answer to the transport problem, and we shall need multiple contributions.
 
One promising source, in my opinion, is wastes. One simple calculation I did was that municipal solid waste (MSW) could be converted to hydrocarbon fuel at a rate of about 2 litres per person per week, based on 1980s MSW production. That may not seem a lot, but it includes all those who do not use vehicles. That is gross production, but it is effectively net because fuel is needed to collect the waste. You cannot simply leave the refuse on the streets. Forestry wastes are another source. Currently these are usually left lying, or buried, but they could produce very large amounts of fuel if properly used. Agricultural wastes are slightly more difficult to assess, because many of them, while they could produce large amounts of fuel, are also valuable for returning nutrients to the soil and conditioning it. However, food processing wastes are highly suitable, because there is no other use for them. Think of the huge volumes of waste after pressing olive oil. Sewage sludge is unlikely to have serious conflicting uses. The advantages of using wastes is that in most cases, using them solves another problem, namely what to do with them.
 
Objecting to growing crops seems wrong to me unless those crops have better uses. While there are food shortages, these are in specific localities, and elsewhere, farmers have been paid to grow nothing. They might as well grow something useful. Think of sugarcane in Brazil. If you did not use it for fuel, what would you do with it? And why not use the mountains of bagasse that are created? I have driven through selected parts of Brazil, and there are vast tracts of land that are essentially doing nothing, and have little environmental benefit either. Maybe they are not much use for growing food, but if so, is it wrong to grow fuel-crops? Then there is marginal land.  Members of the Euphorbiaceae frequently have relatively high lipid or hydrocarbon contents and are alleged to grow on marginal land; the problem with this is that marginal land may support special plants, but the yields are usually marginal, and whether it is worth the effort is another matter.
 
The aqueous environment also offers scope. One project I have been involved in is to use microalgae grown in sewage ponds. This option has two advantages: besides producing fuels, and some interesting chemical options, microalgae also scrub excess nutrients from the water, thus reducing pollution. Similarly, the marine environment offers further opportunities. Macrocystis is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet, and it is really fascinating to have a small plant growing under a microscope: you can watch the cells divide right before your eyes. More to the point, the US Navy once demonstrated that you could grow this on rafts in deep water. Whatever else we are short of, ocean area is not one of them.
 
What is interesting is that most of these opportunities are currently being ignored. All require serious technical work, but is that not what scientists should be advocating? For example, the US Navy project had no problem growing the plants, but because the rafts were anchored to the seafloor, the project was destroyed in a storm. Such a failure, though, is no reason to give up. There are other ways of going about such a problem. (The project also probably wound up then because the price of crude began falling rapidly.) All of which raises the question, how does society recognize its options and organize itself to carry out the necessary actions in a timely fashion. Current evidence is that society is half asleep at the wheel. Yes, in principle it sees a problem, but that will be in the distant future, or so it believes. What it does not realize that developing technology to deal with such problems, and implementing them on the necessary scale, cannot be done in a few years. We need to be doing more now.
Posted by Ian Miller on Feb 7, 2012 9:06 PM GMT
There appears to be a theory running around regarding the world's economy that goes something like, "We've had troubles, but in a few years it will be business as usual." Is that correct? I think some have considered me to be just plain pessimistic because I think the answer is, "Not really," and I also think things will get very much worse in the course of time. Since I am now semi-retired and research work for a private researcher in NZ is not exactly promising in these tight economic times, I wrote a thriller and self-published it as an ebook, which is set in about 2030 when economies were on the verge of total collapse due to a lack of oil. Part of the reason for writing it was to get people to think about our future prospects if we continue to do nothing about them, but the question is, can things really get that bad?
 
In this context it might be of interest to read an article by Murray and King (Nature, 481, 433). Their basic point is that oil production has now become inelastic (i.e. an increase in price does not lead to an increase in production) and the peak production is about 75 million bbl/day. Yes, small new fields are being discovered, but the fields we know about are declining between 4.5-6.7% per annum. They quote the US Energy Information Administration as projecting the demand for oil at 2030 (the accidental date of my novel!) at a 30% increase, and to do that, we need new fields to produce about 64 million bbl/day, which is almost as much again as what we are producing now. That is not likely to happen. Does it matter right now? The increase in the price of petrol of 20 cents/litre between 2010 and 2011 cost the US $280 million/day. Italy currently spends $55 billion/a, up from $12 billion in 1999, and that difference is very close to the annual trade deficit.
 
Murray and King's point is economies cannot continue like that. If they cannot make changes, then change will be imposed. Thus for every additional dollar spent on petrol, that is a dollar that cannot be spent on something else, which means somebody else's job disappears when the products they make cannot be sold, which in turn means that there is less tax to pay for government services (let alone pay off debt) and of course, the unemployed person, besides taking a benefit and incurring additional government costs, cannot spend on services, which leads to further unemployment, etc. Then again, if society does not get started soon and lets the debt get out of hand, it will not have the capital it needs to make the necessary changes.
 
An immediate conclusion might be, biofuels cannot possibly make up that slack, and that is probably correct, at least in the near future. In my opinion, the only possible area available for such massive production is the oceans, and as yet we have no idea how to make that practical. Tar sands and coal similarly cannot make up the slack, because there is simply insufficient there. So, do we give up on biofuels?
 
In my opinion, no. Biofuels cannot replace oil, but do they have to? Oil is used for a number of uses, many of them because the oil is there. Oil is not necessary to make electricity, but it is difficult to see an alternative to liquid fuels to power aircraft. Similarly, I live not that far away from a major road, and what is interesting is that at rush hours there are a large number of cars going both ways, although there is obviously a preference for commuters going to work in the major city centre. But the question then is, why don't we arrange our lives so that we live closer to work? If everybody lived within 5 km of work, they could all cycle to work. Logic suggests there are answers that can make the future quite attractive, but it needs both cooperation and coordination, and there appear to be few if any indications from politicians that they see such possibilities. The problem, of course, is that the real difficulties will occur some time in what the politician sees as the distant future (i.e. well after the next election), which raises the question, what should people that believe such problems are coming do about it? Suggestions welcome, because I think that if at least people begin discussing it, at least there will be wider appreciation of the problem, assuming there is one. 
Posted by Ian Miller on Jan 26, 2012 3:06 AM GMT
Polly-Anna Ashford posted a comment about PhD supervisors, and instead of commenting, I thought I would post my experience here, mainly because it was my PhD that got me into the alternative interpretations game.

My PhD started like this. I was given a nice looking project, but just as I was about to start, there it was published in the latest JACS. (Better then than 2 years later!) My supervisor gave me two possible new projects and went on holiday. Project 1 involved measuring the rate of some reactions, however, a quick search of the literature gave the answer: zero! Project 2 verged on the suicidal - heating about 3 kg of material with nearly a kg of diazo compound to get a few grams of starting material from several kg of carcinogenic tar. So, head of department suggested I find my own project, which I did. I would enter the emerging controversy on whether cyclopropane was an electron conjugating entity. It seemed a good project but for some synthetic difficulties, not helped by the fact that one key Tet. Lett. kindly omitted the fact that a key reaction had to be done at minus 80 degrees!  (Silly me for not picking that.) So I had to make everything the long way, and by the time I was getting to the meat of the project, supervisor disappeared off for a 1 yr sabbatical. In the end, it dragged out to nearer 18 months by which time I had virtually had to work it out myself.

Four things then happened in fairly quick succession. Supervisor reappeared and came up with a genuinely constructive idea, then disappeared again, searching for a better paying job in North America. The scientific community became firmly convinced that cyclopropane did conjugate because (a) it stabilized adjacent positive charge, and (b) use of the Hammett equation showed that the constant rho, which the degree of transmissability (sorry about that word!) was 30% higher than (CH2-CH2). However, in my work, the Hammett sigma "constants", which actually vary depending on whether there is conjugation (!), showed no conjugation. I then realized the value of rho was exactly as expected with no conjugation but with the additional path, and more to the point, I saw why cyclopropane should stabilize adjacent positive charge without conjugating. The reason lies in the nature of the potential energy in electromagnetic interactions. (In my ebook, I give the example, throw a stone in the air. At the top, its kinetic energy is converted to potential energy, but where is that energy?) In short, I decided that if you considered cyclopropane to be a strained system, before you start postulating strange effects, your reference point should be in accord with Maxwell's electromagnetic theory. The problem then, of course, is that Maxwell's eelctromagnetic theory is not included in most chemistry courses, which is odd since chemistry depends on electromagnetic interactions. The fourth event was, of course, I had to write up my thesis, more or less on my own. What should have happened was that my supervisor should have sat me down in front of a physicist and got my analysis sorted out, but recall my supervisor was on another continent. So, Polly-Anna, are things for you really that bad?

Post-script. Supervisor, who had no intention of putting his neck out, refused to publish the data resulting from his "good idea" because the results contradicted emerging consensus, and the emerging "proof" of conjugation through MO theory, including some work published by the emerging John Pople. These versions of MO theory were exactly the same as predicted the exceptional stability of polywater, so forgive me if I am unimpressed by that "proof". I published a small series of papers,  but I botched the first one by assuming the reader would follow the essence of Maxwell's theory, and I got carried away by the fact that I had an approximation that got an analytical solution to an otherwise insoluble set of partial differential equations. The highlight arose for me when I realized that the n -> pi star transitions of a carbonyl group would generate a charge transfer towards the cyclopropane ring, and while conjugation requires a bathochromic shift, my theory permitted me to calculate the hypsochromic shift to within 1 nm of observation. Triumph? Well, no. One review dismissed these hypsochromic shifts as "unimportant". The authoratative review came out and decided that cyclopropane conjugates, and this is found in most text books. It completely ignored my work, and it completely ignored all the data I had found to support my theory. I later wrote a logic analysis type of review in which I listed over 60 different types of observations that are not in accord with the conjugative theory. The journal that started this review rejected it because there were too many mathematics! Other journals refused to accept logic analyses.

So, Polly-Anna, and others who are a little less happy at the bench, be grateful you do not make too much of a discovery. It is not the good thing to do that I imagined when I made that one. If you go against consensus, too many people have too much to lose, so if you do not win quickly, you lose badly, and you would be surprised how many people dismiss you out of hand. On the other hand, join the flow and anything is forgivable. You may recall John Pople won a Nobel Prize. His assertions on the stability of polywater were put aside for that!
Posted by Ian Miller on Jan 14, 2012 11:06 PM GMT
In this part of the world, Christmas cards look a little odd with all that snow, etc, but they do remind me why Christmas is at this time of the year: it is the end of the Saturnalia. In Roman times, at the winter solstice the God Saturn would see out the old year, and would promise that shortly the world would be reborn, the days would begin lengthening again, spring would come, crops could be sown, and all would be well. In the short dark interval before there was perceptible lengthening, Romans would feast, play tricks and bow down to the Lord of Misrule! The Christians highlighted the day of rebirth, about three days after the solstice, but I sometimes wonder if the politicians have stolen too much of the preceding concept. Proper rule should be based on logic and clear evidence; misrule by definition, on anything else.
 
Just recently New Zealand seems to have been struck by torrential floods, the effects of which appear to have been magnified as a consequence of theories by "authorities" of where to build and how much forest can be cut from where. As another example, the kiwifruit industry has been hit by a fungal disease that, while it cannot be absolutely proven, appears to have been introduced with imported pollen. The Head of the agricultural authority that approved the importation was reported, as an excuse, as saying there was no scientific evidence published that the fungus could come with pollen. My gripe with that is one of logic: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
 
My point is, science has a lot to offer the community, but only if the community understands the basis of it. People who make decisions, and the average citizen who must either accept such decisions or protest, must do so on proper grounds. The average citizen most certainly should not be asked to sit down and do piles of calculus, but it would be extremely beneficial if they could at least assess the arguments given as likely to be correct or not, based on an understanding of what a scientific argument should look like. The experts should provide the analysis, but more people should be able to tell whether the analysis looks sound or is just plain lazy. The most important point of all lies in what is not there, how many assumptions are made and whether they look realistic. That is not impossible for the non-specialist to do.
 
So, how do we bring about such a transformation? We can preach, but I rather feel that will only work with a select few. My personal view is that we can do more. At this time of the year, we give each other gifts, and books are common gifts. While thinking about that, I thought, science fiction might help, then with a little more thought, I had to ask, does it really? Does it convey any scientific method, or is it usually just "magic" and the equivalent of the modern day sorcery tales? For those interested in my thoughts on that, rather than the dreaded "multiple publication", why not a reference!  http://greyhartpress.com/2011/12/12/guest-post-ian-miller-gives-a-scientists-view-of-science-fiction/ 
 
Meanwhile, may I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year, that reactions go as planned and discoveries flow in 2012. And, of course, Io Saturnalia!
Posted by Ian Miller on Dec 20, 2011 9:58 PM GMT
Suppose you believe that sooner or later, providing transport fuels will become a problem? What do you do, and more to the point, how do you go about it? The issues are surprisingly complicated, and as an example, consider the case of when the government wishes to promote ethanol from corn, as in the US.
 
This appears to eb a simple problem as the technology is well established, but that still leaves open the question, how do you do it? To encourage production, and avoid the moral hazard of selecting specific companies, or worse still, to defend against allegations that you selected your friends, the simplest procedure is to offer the money as a subsidy.
 
The reason for going after corn in the US is simple: when this was first considered, there was a surplus of corn and spare corn was cheap. However, corn is also a food, and the price elasticity of food is not a simple function. If you have too much food, depressing the price has little effect on increasing consumption, because you (or animals) can only eat so much. On the other hand, if you have too little, you (or animals) still have to eat, and accordingly there is competition for what is available and the price goes up significantly. Worse, there is not unlimited land on which to plant more. Accordingly, the end-result tends to be a function with a sharp bend and it is never clear where that is. Accordingly, the first corn plant makes ethanol with little downstream effect, and if the subsidy is enough, the plant makes money. Unfortunately, that encourages "me-too" investment and at some point the corn price rises.
 
While simple theory suggests that the price will rise to the point where further investment in ethanol is discouraged, simple theory overlooks the effect of response time. It takes perhaps years to construct such a plant, and if the initial indicators are good, usually there is an overinvestment in such plant. Accordingly, prices rise above where the subsidy makes a profit, which means there has to be a shakeout. What tends to be shaken out are the least efficient plants, or those with the least persistent backers, and paradoxically it is often the early plants that get shaken out.
 
From the public point of view, there is moral hazard in selecting specific companies and helping them; from the economic point of view there is hazard in subsidies; from the system point of view there is long-term hazard from doing nothing, because at some stage the transport costs will get put of hand and while eventually this problem may (or may not) be solved, eventually may follow the greatest depression of all time. So, the question is, what should be done, and how should it be done? In my opinion, there has been a serious shortage of thought on this issue. Don't we care if we all have to walk? Or is it just that the politicians do not care, because they believe that whatever else happens, they will never have to walk?
Posted by Ian Miller on Dec 11, 2011 11:39 PM GMT
The next problem relating to science funding that I wish to discuss is where will the money come from? Pure science is generally funded from the public purse. However, this may be an unreliable source in the not too distant future because most governments have funded a lot of their activities through debt. While the question of what level of debt is tolerable is something of an economic minefield, one point is clear: a number of governments are going to have to make considerable budget savings, and pure science is as likely as not to suffer.
 
Suppose such funding is cut by x per cent, how should scientists respond? My suggestion will not please everybody, but I feel that operational expenditure should be the first to go. Over the past thirty years, an enormous amount of data has been generated, and I feel much more can be mined from it. One example has come from planetary science: a limited number of papers are now being produced that revisits data obtained much earlier. Obviously this cannot go on for ever, but it might be better for the scientists to make an agreement with governments to sacrifice some current expenditure for the common good, on the understanding that the sacrifice is temporary, than the governments make the cuts anyway, and in the general fight for reduced funding, many good scientists are forced to become taxi drivers. To support my view, you might wish to read R. A. Kerr (Science 334: 1052-1053). While discussing the actions needed to combat climate change, the following points were made. First, David Behar was quoted as saying, "“We need actionable science.” He defined that as “data, analysis, and forecasts that are sufficiently predictive, accepted and understandable to support decision-making.” As Bruce Hewitson was quoted as saying that a result is actionable if you would spend your own money on it. Both men stated that they were drowning in data, but assessment was terrible, and there were very few actionable results.
 
What about applied science? Funding of science requires an actionable decision, so on what basis should decisions be made? It is usually considered that industry should fund its own research, on the grounds that there is no reason for the taxpayer to fund private benefit, and that call will grow more strident in difficult times. The call may well be reinforced through the issues relating to moral hazard, for example, why should the taxes of a company be used to support a competitor? It is one thing to have to compete; it is entirely another to have to assist your competitor. (However, I am far from convinced that some in the public sector appreciate this point.)
 
Nevertheless there are some issues that are so important to the community at large that they cannot be left to chance, and the production of fuel in the inevitable event of oil production being inadequate for demand appears to be one of these. So, who funds it? The most desirable source, in my opinion, is the private sector because they will be more focused on achievable goals, but what happens if they do not? If the governments provide funds, who benefits directly (i.e. gets to use the technology) and why? If governments provide funding, to whom do the funds go, and why? Funding on applied research should be a business decision, but who controls the expenditure, to ensure that there is a minimum of wastage? On the other hand, if nobody is funding the most critical research, is society prepared to suffer the consequences?
 
Posted by Ian Miller on Nov 28, 2011 11:04 PM GMT
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 GMT
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