In recent months, a number of prominent conservatives have decried US Government loan guarantees to (relatively) early-stage companies in the green power industry. The biggest of these, of course, has been Solyndra. Simultaneously, they attack emissions and fuel efficiency standards on vehicles, power plants, etc. These disingenuous attacks ignore a basic, fundamental truth about the vast majority of modern innovation: it stands on the shoulders of Government-funded research. I know, heresy. The obvious example, of course is the Internet. The web, too, was invented at CERN, an organization operated by 20 European states. Nuclear power is another obvious example. Conservatives have advocated outsourcing. They've claimed the Government cannot do anything right, and that we should let private industry innovate. But when we attempt, through loan guarantees, to encourage this, they decry the bad bets. Ultimately, basic research isn't about making profits. It's about investing in a future that is unimaginable. The tangible, economic benefits of the US space program are incredible; countless industries have been spawned through NASA's research. Fifty years from now, the countries with the most successful private industries, will be those who spent money now on basic, Government-funded research, that will ultimately find its way into the private sector. These investments will have looked foolish today - there will not have been any immediate benefit to the citizens (necessary in private companies to justify research), but rather a long-term benefit that out-performs anything we can imagine.
I strongly recommend Fareed Zakaria's discussion of this topic.