If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?

Do you remember this verbal jab from your schoolyard days? Maybe it’s generational, but I used to hear it all the time when I was growing up. Couldn’t ever find a particularly snappy comeback then…

…and today’s not that much different.

Certainly this same question could be asked today of anyone trying to make a living by providing information on the real world – the world as resource, victim, and threat. Those of us in the business? We think we have a lot to offer. We think this information – on the food to feed a hungry world, water to slake our thirst, energy to keep the wheels of society turning – should be of ultimate value. We think people out there ought to care about how we maintain current levels of ecosystem services provided by healthy habitats and rich biodiversity, and the costs of pollution and environmental degradation. We think policymakers, business leaders, emergency managers and everyone else on down ought to be hanging on every word about natural hazards ranging from hurricanes to tsunamis, from flood, drought (and heat waves!) to earthquakes.

But the truth? People don’t apparently care all that much. Look at the world’s checkbook – what we’re investing to secure this knowledge. It amounts to maybe $40B U.S. worldwide each year. At first blush, that might seem like a lot. Spread it across the regular readers of this blog, and we’d be rich beyond our wildest dreams (and blog readership would go up!). But compared with a $60T a year worldwide GDP, it no longer seems so significant. It’s a mere 0.067%, folks. Worldwide, we twice as much each year on coffee – $80B/year. We currently spend $60B/year on ice cream.

You know that figure you sometimes see in the newspapers – that notional date each year you and I stop working for government at all levels, and the remaining money we earn starts flowing to us instead of going to taxes? In the United States, the Tax Foundation calls that Tax Freedom Day; they estimated that this year it fell on April 12. The notion to wrap your head around? A little more than three months out of every year you and I are in effect working for our government services. The other nine months our paychecks go into our pocketbooks. (For comparison, live most anywhere in Europe and each year you’re working for your government maybe an additional month or more.)

How about Earth Observations, Science, and Services Freedom Day? Turns out wherever you live, you’ve paid for all the information you’ll be getting throughout the year on the planet you live on by 6:00 a.m. on January 1. Fact is, chances are good that’s before you’ve even rolled out of bed, after the revels of the night before. [In fact, some of you might not even have made it to bed!] Next year, include among your resolutions a vow to pay for information about the planet you live on. You can check that box while you’re brewing the first pot of coffee for the year. Think how good you’ll feel.

It gets worse. It turns out the world begrudges us even this small level of funding. Two recent examples? First, Congressional failure to fund the Joint Polar Satellite System at the $800M level needed in 2011, setting us on a path to eighteen months of no polar-satellite coverage beginning in the 2016-2017 time frame. Second, a recent House appropriations (committee-level) vote to reduce NOAA funding by 30% for FY2012. Other government agencies are experiencing similar woes.

It’s tempting for those of us who traffic in information on the real world to look at this policy landscape and conclude that the world has gone daft. Tempting, yes, comforting, perhaps, but not in our best interest.

Arguably we’d be better off if we came at this problem from the other direction. Let’s assume that those policy officials, lawmakers, corporate executives and others we think should be interested in our knowledge and services are as high-minded and as intelligent as we are. What is it they know that we don’t? Why, if we’re so smart, ain’t we rich?

Here are some possible starting points for such self-examination:

  1. Maybe we aren’t as smart as we think we are – we don’t know as much as we think we do.
  2. Possibly what we know isn’t being applied.
  3. Perhaps what we know is being mis-applied.
  4. Maybe the benefits from what we know, and the perception of those benefits, lag the advance of our knowledge and understanding.

Got your own explanation you’d like to add to the list? Please add a comment, let us all know.

In subsequent posts, we’ll consider each of these (and maybe others) in turn.

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7 Responses to If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?

  1. Why, if we’re so smart, ain’t we rich? My opinion is that most of us do what we do because 1) we think its the right thing to do, 2) we are content to acquire knowledge and have a beneficial impact on society. Those job descriptions don’t pay all that well.

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks, Ed. These two possibilities are the best of all. Why? Because they’re the highest-minded, but also, closest to the truth. Worth a more extensive examination and discussion! Will reserve a separate post for this at the end of the series.

      Any other candidates out there?

  2. Tim Cohn says:

    Asking the public to fund (and worship?) science is a tall order. For one thing, it smacks of arrogance, suggesting that science deserves a special place in the firmament. Sure, it is understandable that scientists, as “one-eyed men,” might believe they should guide the non-scientists (i.e. “blind”); it is not obvious why the “blind” would understand or fund this “vision,” and, based on empirical evidence, it is even less obvious that “better vision” — if that’s what scientists have to offer — is, or even necessarily should be, critical to electoral success in 21st century democracies. Voters have desires and aspirations that often conflict with a rational understanding of the universe; they want reassurance that things will be OK, that their fantasies, however unrealistic, will not be disturbed. As a result, obtaining funding for the study of natural hazards will likely remain a challenge despite the benefits, measured in terms of saved lives and extraordinary return on public investment, that research and monitoring provide — a curious predicament indeed!

    • Well said, Tim:

      You’ve hit on a couple of key points. First, as scientists we shouldn’t see ourselves as keepers of revealed truths. And as voters, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to be unflinchingly realistic. Fact is, we might be better off if we could say something like “we are all scientists…” just as after September 11, 2001, a number of internationals said, “we are all Americans…” Might be good to reinforce a mindset that thinks of all people united in holding logic and experience/evidence-based thinking in high regard. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Mike Kiparsky says:

    What is the source for your $40B/year figure for securing knowledge, and what activities does this include? Great comparison to expenditures on coffee.

    • Great question, Mike. I hope my answer doesn’t disappoint. This is not a full inventory, but rather an order-of-magnitude estimate, and it goes something like this. The figure would includes $5B of NOAA funding, $1B for NSF geosciences, $1B for USGS, and $2B of funding for NASA earth sciences. Throw in another $1B for research at EPA, USDA, etc. Might be a bit of an underestimate. Then assumed an expenditure of the rest of the world in ratio of GDP. Depending upon what’s in or out, you might come up with a figure say 30% lower or even 100% higher. Point is, it’s small/there’s room for growth.

  4. Tim Cohn says:

    I particularly like “6:00 a.m. on January 1” — helped me see and appreciate the true strangeness of the situation. When viewed as $40 billion it sounds like a lot of money, but not when expressed as a fraction of GDP or what we routinely allocate toward health care, defense, homeland security, etc. Are those other threats really that much more worthy of funding? Is it something else? Maybe we are more tolerant of natural hazards, or more fatalistic, or simply less rational…

    In any case, Bill, I thank you for the thought-provoking essay.

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