I just read that a Senate committee had moved ahead on legislation requiring that 50% of cars be all-electric, battery-powered in 20 years, see here. This sort of feel-good action exemplifies the overall hubris, ignorance and, ultimately, the demeaning mindset of the legislative class about scientific and engineering progress .
]I am not talking here about the presumed "virtue" of the goal itself, nor the questions of from where all the minerals and materials for these batteries (or the electricity with which to fill them) will come. Instead, I mean the mindset which assumes that if you demand and direct engineers (and scientists) to do something, then they will (to quote Star Trek's Captain Picard) "make it so." Sorry, folks, but you can't force progress by legislative fiat.
What's wrong with this thinking? Lots. First, it assumes such progress is a linear, predictable, deterministic process. You just put money in at one end, twist a few dials to establish setpoints for the desired outcome, and poof! you'll get what you want. There's little or no place for the unexpected, no unknowns, no branching off to other paths; it's all so straight and well-defined.
It all assumes that you know what you want to do, and pretty much how to get there; there are just a few small details to be worked out. It diminishes and downplays the engineering challenge and reality of the actual world we live in, despite the talk (let's call it "lip service") about those brilliant, hard-working scientists and engineers.
Here's one example to think about. This past May was the 50th anniversary of the first optical laser (did you miss the celebration? There wasn't one — it was pretty much ignored, while we all were bombarded instead with the tribulations of Lindsay Lohan.) The developers of the laser didn’t set out to build a device which would be useful for applications x, y, and z; they set out to generate a coherent optical source, paralleling the microwave one that had been developed a little earlier. In fact, when the laser was first announced, many so-called pundits joked that it was a solution in search of a problem or application. Well, we all know how that turned out: you can make your own long list of incredible and diverse laser applications we now depend on daily.
Finally, the legislative-fiat method brings in an aspect of accountability and even retribution. I can almost hear it now: "we gave you all this money to develop the warp drive and the transporter beam, and instead you came up with this anti-gravity platform — we didn't ask for that!" Once big bucks start flowing towards tightly directed research and goals, the dispenser of such funds begins to demand that objectives be met, or else someone will have to be held accountable for the "failure". Not good.
So I say to these legislators who like to dictate engineering and scientific progress by the wave of their arm: please, why not start simple and small, at first? How about you begin by legislatively defining "pi" to be 3.0 instead of 3.14159…., since that would make things so much easier for everyone.
After you see how that works out, you can go onto to bigger, more ambitious dictates. A deal? I didn’t think so. Or maybe I am wrong, and you'll have to think about it a little, before you do it?