The question actually came to me last weekend at a party when an Englishman I was talking to said “Good Riddance” on hearing that BlueCrest had moved headquarters from London to Geneva. I actually partly agree — probably for the first & last time — with Michael Farmer
“If one is a citizen and your country’s having a tough time, you pay your taxes and that’s it – although rather reluctantly if they are not spending it wisely,” Mr Farmer told the Financial Times.
“These people [leaving London] can go to Baar and Zug and be in the mountains with little to do and little culture and have lots of money in the bank. Here in London there’s a great variety of culture and lots to do, and maybe less money in the bank, but I prefer this option.”
Personally, I’d also rather not see too many of the hedgie wives (if you thought footballer wives were bad, don’t) cluttering up the rather nice streets & restaurants of Geneva, a town I rather like.
But what struck me was the subtext of the comment. It somehow implied that these people have no societal value, so let them go to hell for all this person (and a lot of other people I know) cared. Make no mistake, I was not feeling defensive myself, I have no illusions about my intrinsic value to society or to humanity at large. But it raises an interesting question nevertheless.
Reminds me of one of my thesis advisors at Engineering school and his favorite question:
What is the intrinsic value of any scientific endeavor?
After making us squirm for a while, he would start with the story of the Screwworm Fly. This story is best retold in the words of Steven Schimmrich (by the way Steven, kudos on writing so well, I hope your students appreciate you):
In 1955, a $250,000 grant was awarded to researcher E.F. Knipling to study the sex life of the parasitic screwworm. Senator William Proxmire (a Democrat) later awarded this study – The Sexual Behavior of the Screw-Worm Fly – his infamous “Golden Fleece” award which was given to projects he believed were a ridiculous waste of taxpayer dollars. Proxmire, whose degree was in Business Administration, turned out to be rather poor judge of biological research projects since this project is estimated to have had a payback measured in the billions of dollars.
Screwworms were a major cattle parasite in the southern U.S. and Mexico. Knipling developed the sterile insect release technique (take an bunch of male insects, sterilize them, and release them into the wild) which is now used for the control of many different insect species. By 1966, the U.S. was declared screwworm free. The program is estimated to have saved $20 billion for U.S. cattle producers and $7 billion for Mexicans. It’s estimated that beef prices are 5% lower because of the eradication of this cattle parasite. In 1992, Knipling won the World Food Prize since his research had such a positive effect on the world food supply. Even Proxmire later admitted he was wrong about this study.
The point my professor made was that the right answer to his question is always: a priori “None.” But that should not be a reason to stop any basic research because you don’t really know when you’ll need a particular piece of information engendered by some long-forgotten piece of research. By the way, Proxmire’s Golden Fleece award has some other notable howlers where recipients ended up being important later — though, truth be told, some of them were deserved.
In the same way, financiers, hedge fund types, traders, bankers, even (god forbid) investment bankers have no intrinsic value. Granted, most of them may be greedy bastards out only for themselves but overall, they do provide some value but that can only be realized a posteriori. So, what’s the intrinsic value of a financier? The a priori answer is always “none.” But guess what your intrinsic value is?
- Dot Earth: A Scientist’s Call to Renew Both Education and Inquiry (dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com)