Author: Marc Fawzi
It’s granted that top-down basic research is not well funded in the US.
It’s granted that top US technical schools like MIT, CMU and others have been doing contract basic research that is funded by foreign companies (not sure what restrictions are in place if any) and students from foreign countries have been getting their PhDs in material science, nuclear physics, biotechnology, etc and moving back to their countries of origin (since their tuition is paid for by those countries’ governments.)
It’s also granted that China (and on a smaller scale India) are funding basic research within their own countries. India now has the world’s first supersonic guided missile. China has the world first “clean coal” technology. The latter comes as a surprise since many millions have been spent by environmental groups here in the US telling us that there is no such thing as “clean coal.” Maybe those millions should have been spent inventing the technology, but conventional wisdom tells us that top-down commitment at the governmental level is needed to enable the kind of basic research that would lead to major breakthroughs.
However, the world is moving from a top-down centralized approach to basic research to a bottom-up, peer-to-peer (p2p) based one, and the US has the right culture to lead the world when it comes to bottom up innovation, even when it comes basic research.
The ever accelerating evolution (or devolution) of our top-down capitalist society is paradoxically putting more and more power in the hands of individuals; and we can all attest to it given how easy it has become to build a software startup, and hardware startups will be just as easy when the open hardware and open manufacturing movements come out into the mainstream (see: http://freedomdefined.org/OSHW.)
Another example is the case of “DIY Biology,” where bio-hackers are using “bio bricks” and the latest DIY Bio technology to build new compounds and even new (genetically modified) living systems (for now bacteria and plants) for practical purposes.
So given these trends, my view is that the US will lead the world in bottom-up basic research given the recent trends in open software, open hardware, open biology and open manufacturing that are most virulent among college students, engineers and scientist here in the US.
China is simply NOT setup to accommodate bottom-up innovation. And it’s bottom-up innovation that will change the world, for the better or worse. I tend to think for the better, despite the massive risks to the current order that come from giving individuals so much power, even power over life itself (sounds dramatic until you learn what college kids are doing with those DIY Bio kits.)
It’s true that individuals cannot setup a semiconductor foundry or a flat panel display factory but there are emerging technologies (like cheap printable electronics and even cheap printable light emitting elements) that will allow individuals to innovate in these areas, empowered by DIY tech (the key to bottom up innovation.)
And let’s not forget desktop manufacturing, especially the new bread of machines that can produce intricate and precise structures from metals, ceramics, and plastics (see Useful Links.)
The people don’t only have the fire now, they know how to make the matches.
And there is no country in the world with a more innovative bottom-up spirit than the US.
So the shift of top-down innovation to China does not bother me because it’s about time the world woke up to the idea of DIY innovation, both basic and integrative.
FWIW, I’ve been thinking a lot about peer production systems and economies, and if anyone is interested I can dialog about the key trends driving the underground shift from top-down production systems to peer production (or “bottom up” production.)
- The BioBricks Foundation (at OpenWetWare) “Using BioBrick™ standard biological parts, a synthetic biologist or biological engineer can already, to some extent, program living organisms in the same way a computer scientist can program a computer.” See this too: http://syntheticbiology.org/BioBricks.html
- Ponoko – “The worlds easiest making system” (updated Nov 20, 2010: new 3D printing materials are durable plastic, superfine plastic, rainbow ceramic, stainless steel and gold plate.)
- Shapeways – like Ponoko but seems to be mostly for small sized objects
- RepRap – Homemade rapid prototyper (fantastic!)
- Open Source Hardware initiative
More links coming soon.