Venture Capitalists Leading Science

The United States has long been developing its own design for centrifuges that can separate uranium isotopes. Recently, the DOE, the only funder of the project, has cut the budget (photo from this link). This is an indigenous American technology with the potential for minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and providing jobs. Since the government seems unable to make it profitable, seems like a place for the free market and venture capitalists to intervene!

But no word from Elon Musk or Peter Thiel. Musk is busy buying Russian rockets with American government money to try to supplant NASA. Peter Thiel is admonishing the biotech industry to become less random.

Both Musk and Thiel made their inital fortunes by developing PayPal in a new environment, where timing and luck played a big part. If PayPal crashed, it wouldn’t kill people, like a rocket or vaccine.

There is a presumption in the media, and probably held by many Americans, that if you’ve made a lot of money, you must know what you’re doing. There’s plenty of data out there to refute that (Donald Trump, anyone?), but it’s hard to counter a good story with data.

Musk is leveraging your tax dollars to make even more money. He buys Russian rocket motors because they are a quick way to his goal, not because that is a sustainable strategy, although, to be fair, it looked more sustainable before Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea. Thiel wants biotech to become a predictable place to make more money. The potential is great: if people need drugs to live, more money can be squeezed out of them.

Why these guys need yet more money is beyond me. So is what they are contributing to science or engineering. I see no new ideas, no new science. Another Gen X/Millennial creation occurs to me: the mangling of the story of the Manhattan Project by a video series. That series felt that the real story, where Robert Oppenheimer allowed Seth Neddermeyer and a small group to investigate implosion on a parallel track to the development of a gun design for a plutonium weapon, was insufficient, and today’s obsession with competition as exemplified by the Free Market ™ was much more interesting.

Except the Manhattan Project succeeded in its goals by a much more cooperative approach. Having options ready and being able to turn the entire project on a dime when it became clear that the gun design wouldn’t work. The willingness of project participants to give up what they had been working on was part of that, subordinating one’s own goals and ego.

Ego – oh yeah – think that has anything to do with Musk’s and Thiel’s decisions?

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