The Spike

How you pay for US wars

Despite mass unemployment and overstrained educational infrastructure, your tax money is paying for the next generation of American war machines.
Read time 4min 10sec

If you ever lack the warm, fuzzy feeling that you're doing your bit to help defend the free world and defeat the axis of evil, look no further than the CSIR and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. They're investing your tax money in a speculative project for the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to build revolutionary new autonomous military vehicles.

This US agency annually offers a prize for a team that can build a robotic vehicle that completes a set challenge. The original DARPA Grand Challenge involved traversing fairly simple all-terrain routes. The participating teams increasingly met with success, even as the challenges have become more complex. Last year's Grand Challenge involved urban navigation in real-world traffic. It's exciting stuff. "Cool" doesn't begin to describe it.

The aim of SA's participation, reports CSIR to enter robot race, a recent ITWeb article, is to generate visibility for both the CSIR and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, "to attract top students and researchers-engineers in this scarce skills environment".

"This project, dubbed 'Renoster', is ideal to expose younger engineers to collaboration with peers in different disciplines. At the same time, it creates the opportunity for natural and productive mentoring," it quotes a CSIR spokesperson.

It might sound churlish to complain about South Africa's participation in the next DARPA Grand Challenge. It sure sounds like a fun way to learn and to break new research ground, and I'd have loved to be part of such a team as a student.

The question is whether these benefits are sufficient to justify diverting scarce resources, when those resources are sorely needed for basic infrastructure and services

Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist and columnist.

However, consider education minister Naledi Pandor's comments at the same university a few months ago: "It is clear that we can't respond to the challenges of the 21st century with the higher education system at its present capacity. In addition, the physical infrastructure for teaching, learning, and research is ageing and in need of renovation."

The government budget for higher education has doubled in the last decade. This year it runs to over R15 billion, and by 2010, it will be just short of R20 billion. That's a large and rising amount of taxpayer cash, evidently much needed. It might arguably be better spent than on a speculative project to design technology for the American government, in the hope of winning a cash prize.

The CSIR, likewise, depends to a significant extent on public funding, and the Competition Commission has publicly expressed its concern about the particular role it plays in unfair competition from state-owned enterprises that impedes the growth and development of private sector companies.

Don't get me wrong. The notion of autonomous technology in the military is a good one. Whether or not you agree with the notion of defending the free world against the totalitarian ideology, violence and terrorism that threatens it, smart technology is an investment in saving lives and limiting the unintended costs and consequences of war. Besides, useful civilian spinoffs will certainly emerge.

The notion of prize pools to spark competition among smart innovators is also a good one. Recent examples are the X-Prizes for private manned space flight or viable super-efficient cars. The prize offered by Raymond Orteig for the first trans-Atlantic flight, eventually won by Charles Lindbergh, is perhaps the most famous. In fact, prizes offered by capitalists have a long and distinguished history in the annals of innovation, throughout the industrial revolution. They constitute a perfect example of private individuals risking their own capital to establish a market and solve society's problems.

Less obvious is why such prizes should be funded by taxpayer money. Admittedly, common defence is traditionally the domain of government, so we'll grant DARPA that its solution is as good as it gets in the public sector. Besides, what Americans do with their tax money is their problem.

Entirely non-obvious, however, is why a developing country's taxpayer money should be used to compete for such a prize. Of course there are benefits in terms of technology development and education. The question is whether these benefits are sufficient to justify diverting scarce resources, when those resources are sorely needed for basic infrastructure and services. Our country still suffers high levels of poverty and unemployment, and still admits to a serious lack of institutional capacity and facilities in the very education sector from which this investment is drawn.

How much "cool" is needed to plaster over those cracks?

* Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist and columnist, who blogs at He loves cool science projects, even in the context of war, as long as they're privately funded.

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