The Need for Long-term Research

Long-term research is vital, but rare. Long Now Board Member Kevin Kelly on what we can do to make it common and incentivized.

I am imagining a type of institution that would specialize in long-range research. These institutions (plural) would manage research that had a 25+ year horizon. This might be “pure” basic research with no apparent value within 25 years, as well as long-term longitudinal studies that take 25 years or more to complete. Some programs would be large-scale projects with ambitious decades-long goals. Others would be small individual limited projects with a single PI. Research with a 25-year horizon to either completion or payoff would create a generational research agenda.

At first approximation, this is the type of research that universities are supposed to be doing now. However it is rarely done by universities. Rather the typical research project might last 4 years at the longest because that is the max duration of a PhD and post-doc. An average PhD candidate wants their own unique project; they don’t want to continue someone else’s project. So the academic world is a rapid succession of short-lived projects. There are many advantages to this frothy, bubbling, rapid pace, but what we do not get are the results gained from ambitious multi-generation work. There are some hard things that require long-durations to reveal, and many other discoveries that require work beyond the scope of single investigators.

Long-range research is the type of work that is sometimes funded by DARPA in the US, NASA, and some international agencies and research programs. Sending telescopes and probes into deep space, or building high-speed particle accelerators are long-lived research agendas. These are also huge-budget projects, with attendant high-profile politics. We need more long-term research projects that require smaller budgets and resources to endure. That would help make them common rather than rare.

Some of the research labs of big tech companies (AT&T, Microsoft, IBM, Google) are occasionally engaged in this extended time horizon. This long horizon is harder to justify to their stockholders, so the percentage of long-range research they do is a small fraction of all their research, and it is rarely on the 25-year horizon, but in the mix this longer-term commercial research is helpful and important.

We can’t really expect corporate enterprises to develop 25-year programs. Governments should continue to fund as much long-horizon research as they can. I see two frontiers where long-range research might blossom. One is in international cooperation. Pooling resources from dozens if not hundreds of nations reduces political risk and makes it possible to fund things that may never pay off or pay off in another generation. More likely, non-profits can operate here. In many ways, they are the best-shaped organization to do multi-generational work. They don’t have to show results next quarter, they are free of many political mandates, they can make failures without punishment, and they can aim for the future.

We might create incentives for non-profits to focus on long-term projects. Perhaps in addition to the usual tax advantages we give to non-profit donations, maybe there are additional advantages if they aim to “payout” the next generation. Maybe a donor gets twice the tax write-off if the chosen non-profit funds long-term research, or long-term projects with a plus 25-year horizon. For example, maybe the non-profit is doing solar-panel material research that might take a generation to arrive, or perhaps they want to develop a system of planetary ocean monitors that would take a generation to install and track. We could invent tax and legal incentives to promote this kind of time horizon.

Today, long-term research is rare. It is hard for corporations and national governments to do. However we could encourage non-profits, universities, and international agencies to do more by developing additional incentives. And by promoting their successes when they do so.

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The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking. Our work encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization — the next and last 10,000 years — a timespan we call the long now.

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