Saturday, September 8, 2012

The unsung "job creators"

Unless you've been living in a cave these last few years, you've undoubtably heard the term "job creator" thrown around a lot.  The phrase is often used in reference to CEOs and other businessmen (and women) who run companies.  Actually, more often than not, it is used to refer to anybody who somehow has made a lot of money (regardless of how many actual jobs they've personally "created" or whether they simply inherited their wealth).  The connotation is of a benevolent capitalist who invests in an industry with a forward eye towards sustaining local economies.

These executives are elevated to near angelic status by some, but truth be told, they are all actually sitting at the end of the "job creation" chain.  The true stimulus for developing industries and subsequent employment usually happens much much earlier.  It usually begins in the laboratory.

Building an economy by asking a question

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, science and technology has served as the bedrock of emerging industries.  Without theoretical physics, we would never of had atomic energy.  Mathematics gave us computers.  Molecular biology gave us biotechnology.  Geology gave us most of the energy industry.

But often the scientific discoveries that allowed for an industry to bloom were not intended to shape an economy.  These research endeavors were started merely to satisfy a curiosity.  My favorite example of this is photography.  Few can argue that the advent of the photograph didn't fundamentally change our world.  It not only revolutionized journalism, but also spawned hundreds of new companies, most notably companies like Kodak.

However, the early photograph came about because of independent, basic science discoveries in physics and chemistry.  The research on photons, electromagnetism and light sensitive materials that lead to the photograph weren't developed explicitly for photography.  They were the result of many independent scientists who were simply curious about the world around them.  It wasn't until Joseph Niepce and Louis Daguerre put these together that the early photographic process began to get off the ground.

Or take another example more closely tied to my work. The advent of the now almost ubiquitous medical imaging procedure MRI didn't come around on its own.  It was built off of fundamental discoveries in physics on the electromagnetic properties of molecules and atoms, as well as biological studies on the tissue content of the human body.  So basically, answering questions about how hydrogen atoms spin and how fatty the human brain really is led to perhaps the most important medical technology advancement since the vaccine.

Now these aren't isolated anecdotes.  Nearly every industry built off of a technological advancement that can trace its roots to basic science discoveries that had no clear applications when they started. 

Pulling the rug out from under new industries

Today, science is exploding (sometimes literally) with many new fundamental discoveries.  We've found the Higgs boson, we've discovered life in places we never dreamed possible, and we've even figured out how use viruses to make neurons fire by using lasers.  None of these discoveries have any applied uses that we know of... yet.  But who know's what industries they may lead to in the coming years and decades?

Unfortunately, despite these amazing discoveries and advancements, the appreciation for basic research is plummeting in this country.  In general scientific literacy and public support for science is dropping.  Even major scientific funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are pushing for more "applied research" projects at the expense of basic science.  While this may help facilitate immediate advancements in existing industries, it is only a short-term strategy that shifts focus away from the real work that leads to the advent of entirely new industries in the long-term.

I say it's time to take a step back and appreciate who really are the "job creators" around here.  Is it the executive who sends paychecks to tens, hundreds or maybe even thousands of employees or is it the unsung people whose discoveries eventually build entire industries that end up employing thousands or millions of individuals?

So the next time you hear a politician or television pundit talk about thanking a "job creator," head to your local university or research lab and thank a scientist.

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