In straitened financial times, time horizons shrink. This observation is self-similar across scales, applying equally to individuals and families, small businesses and corporations, and countries and economic blocs. If you find yourself struggling to pay bills, even after eliminating luxuries, then you defer some purchases, often painfully. Indeed, if you are homeless, cold and hungry, physical needs shrink time to the here and now – the next meal and a warm place to sleep trump all else. That is something worth remembering about those less fortunate as we face the post-holiday winter and a near-record cold across much of the continental United States.
When times are difficult, as an individual, you keep driving that aging car or truck, even as its reliability declines and the risks of major failure increase. As a small business owner, you defer that infrastructure upgrade, making do with what you have. As a CEO, you avoid risks, focusing on expense reduction and weathering the financial storm. As a country, you collectively focus on the short term, avoiding or militating the effects of recession, prioritizing short-term expenditures over long-term investments.
These sacrifices are natural and rational – in the short term. If continued too long, however, they ultimately lead to calamity and loss, as individuals suffer, infrastructure fails and the future becomes shrouded in a miasma of unfulfilled dreams. For all our physical wants and needs, we are creatures of dreams.
Make no mistake; balancing the immediate, pressing and real needs of the here and now against the uncertain and ill-defined future is a difficult task, made no easier by a cacophony of competing petitioners, each with compelling arguments and considerable needs. Yet is precisely such a time when wisdom and foresight are required; it is the very definition of leadership. Although the needs of the present are real, dreams of the future must not be sacrificed on the altar of exigency.
Telling the Future the Past
Today, in the U.S. we face difficult challenges, with a growing backlog of deferred intellectual maintenance. Over-worked and sleep-deprived drivers are steering many of our vehicles of discovery on balding tires across potholed roads. Stripping away the metaphor, we are struggling to sustain appropriate investments in basic research infrastructure and facilities operations, and our dispirited researchers face ever-diminishing odds of research funding as they work to keep laboratories operational and students and post-doctoral research associates funded.
It is worth remembering that the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) of the U.S. National Academies released and updated the famous "tire tracks" diagram, illustrating the path from basic computing research ideas to major industries. In almost every case, the time from discovery to major societal impact was a decade or more, yet few could have imagined that impact at the time of discovery.
Today's ubiquitous smartphone or tablet has its roots in Engelbart's 1960s "mother of all demos," and a host of other advances in microprocessors, memory and storage systems, web services, and wired and wireless broadband communications. The same is true of cloud computing, advanced robotics, streaming multimedia, global positioning systems, and supercomputing. Each capability is the evolving outgrowth of decades of basic and applied research by tens of thousands of dedicated and passionate researchers. Their dreams of what might be became the computing and communications infrastructure that underpins today's society.
The impact of basic research is no less profound in a host of other domains, and today's choices have long-term implications for national and international competitiveness. As history has repeatedly shown, investment in the future – basic research – is integral to economic recovery and long-term growth. Yet by its very definition, the intellectual and pragmatic outcomes of specific research projects and directions are unpredictable. It is only in retrospect that we see the clear and unmistakable benefits – in medicine and public health, in design and manufacturing, in energy production and efficiency and yes, in computing and communications.
The Road Ahead
The past speaks urgently to the present about the future. It whispers about what could be, about dreams deferred and opportunities lost, about innovation and economic success, and about creativity.
It is time to put some new tires on the vehicle of scientific discovery and head out to the future. As Kerouac noted in On the Road, there's "Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road." We do not know what we will find, but the journey itself is the destination. It leads to the future and a better world.