Earlier this week, the world’s first all-private astronaut crew to visit the International Space Station returned to earth having successfully completed their mission.
This is the latest in a series of recent milestones involving the private sector and space exploration, with spaceflight company Axiom Space launching aboard a SpaceX Dragon 9 capsule.
Or, as the more cynical among us might point out, the latest example of the extreme exploits of the super-wealthy as they play at space tourists.
But leaving aside the debate about billionaires and their exploits that this story highlights, there is an interesting lesson here about the future of scientific discovery.
Science can be an expensive business. And, as I’ve noted many times before, not the most appealing investment opportunity for anyone looking to make a quick buck. Returns can be years in the making – and aren’t always a certainty when what you’re backing can often be little more than a promising idea.
This is why the role of the state has always been so critical to discovery. No private company in the 1960s would have bankrolled the space race.
Beyond putting humans on the moon, state-sponsored science has unlocked some of the modern world’s greatest innovations. The US’s DARPA helped develop the internet and GPS – and the UK is now looking to replicate the model’s success with its ARIA initiative.
Today, we also have CERN – the world’s largest particle physics laboratory – and the EU’s Horizon Europe, a 95.5bn EUR research and innovation budget that the UK is hopefully still going to be a part of. Both initiatives receive significant state-backing.
The trouble is that governments like the UK’s, having called time on austerity shortly before the pandemic, now find themselves needing to mend public finances once again. Its largesse cannot be counted on alone.
Private capital is now dominating the space industry, and not just in so-called space tourism. SpaceX is now regularly shuttling NASA astronauts to and from the ISS. Being able to serve both state and private clients makes business models for companies like SpaceX viable.
What drove the space race from the 1960s was geopolitics, a desire that has cooled since the fall of the Soviet Union. But while the US government’s appetite might have waned, the opportunities for discovery haven’t stopped. Working with private sector partners has kept space exploration alive.
The trick, it would seem, is to align the demands of the free market with the long-term scientific endeavours typically supported by governments. But what about areas that lack the same romantic appeal that space has to our billionaires?
Innovative new public-funding models are one route. In November, I wrote about the dangers of a hidden pandemic being fuelled by rising antibiotic resistance. There is little commercial opportunity for pharma companies in developing novel drugs in this area.
In the UK, an exciting new idea has emerged to create a Netflix-style subscription model, in which the NHS will pay drug companies an annual fee no matter how many doses are prescribed. This will provide the upfront funding needed to stimulate new R&D.
This is a world-first and a genuine breakthrough in the fight against antibiotic resistance. By paying according to the value of what the drugs deliver to the health service rather than on a transactional per use basis, the equation has been flipped and a major barrier removed.
Philanthropy is another route. Consider the amazing work that’s been done in AIDS treatment and malaria vaccines thanks to grant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (perhaps billionaires aren’t all that bad?).
Finding more ways to connect public and private capital will help science to deliver more solutions to humanity’s most demanding and time and resource intensive challenges.