BBC BLOGS - Today: Evan Davis

Archives for July 2009

What will Nasa do next?

Evan Davis | 11:25 UK time, Saturday, 18 July 2009

Today presenter Evan DavisAt the peak of the Apollo programme, when the US wanted to get a man on the moon above all else, Nasa accounted for 4.5% of the federal government budget. Today it is a fraction of that - about 0.6% or thereabouts.

It's a striking comparison.

And look at the results. Between 1969 and 1972, the US got men on the moon six times.

Then it all stopped. They cancelled the remaining three planned trips (Apollo 18, 19 and 20). Since then most people probably barely realise how far away from the moon man has remained.

The International Space Station (ISS) and the space shuttles which visit it hang out in low earth orbit. If the journey to the moon is equivalent to the distance from London to New York, going to the ISS is like a voyage from Westminster to Chelsea. It is a thousandth of the number of kilometres.

It does fortunately mean you don't need a telescope to see the ISS; household binoculars will do. It's quite fun. You can even track its whereabouts to find out when to look up into the sky.

But the sad implication is that the manned distant space travel - like supersonic aeroplane travel - has moved backwards rather than forwards.

What interests me is the very human factor that has driven all of this.

Is it funny that America invested so much in getting men to the moon in the 1960s when it was involved in the expensive Cold War with the Soviets and invests so much less now (relative to GDP) when it has a clearer position as the monopoly superpower?

No it's not funny - it was obviously the Cold War that did it.

The depressing conclusion is that as a species, we tend to concentrate our minds on big things not so much for the advances in pure science they bring, but for the lift they give us relative to our competitors.

When the lift is not needed, or when the competitors are not there, the motivation seems to diminish.

Or to put it another way, Nasa's problem these days is that there is no race for prestige to be won. The arguments for expensive space travel have to be made on scientific grounds - far more shaky in budget arguments than national pride.

Of course, Nasa does have grand plans to go back to the moon and beyond. The Constellation Programme aims to get people beyond low earth orbit again. For evidence of its progress you can see the photo of me walking on Mars itself inside the campus at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston.

It's a small mock Mars landscape, in fact. And 20 metres away is a moon landscape. They're both designed for training astronauts in costume.

But the Constellation Programme is under review. There is an economic crisis on. The target date of 2020 to get Americans off the ground and back on the real moon may well not be met.

Nasa would probably be in a lot better shape if the enemies of the West were more interested in running a flight to Mars than running around in the caves of Waziristan.

Green's advice for happy banks

Evan Davis | 10:11 UK time, Tuesday, 7 July 2009

On a clear day, you can see it for miles - the HSBC tower at Canary Wharf. I had never realised that HSBC occupied all of it, and had rather assumed they let much of it out. But no, it's all theirs and it is reportedly the biggest single workplace in Europe.

HSBC towerI was there to meet the chairman, Stephen Green. and was whisked to the 40th floor, which turned out to be surprisingly funky. A bustling coffee bar, a lounge area, thinking pods and meeting rooms, and shared book cases with volumes on everything from golf to the Aids pandemic.

The one book I couldn't see was the latest work of Mr Green himself, Good Value: reflections on money, morality and an uncertain world.

I'm not surprised it wasn't there. I don't get the impression that Mr Green is the kind of chairman to thrust his book down the throats of his staff. In fact, he comes across as surprisingly gentle and unassuming.

His book reads as a fairly earnest manifesto for the capitalist globalisation that has been an unstoppable force in the world, to be tempered by a certain degree of self-restraint and driven by moral as well as purely financial values.

He makes a useful point in the week our government publishes its banking regulation white paper. Mr Green thinks regulation is necessary, but not sufficient to ensuring banks work in the public interest.

I met Mr Green and chatted to him, and you can hear my interview with him below.

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The conversation we had inevitably strayed into the practicalities of regulation and it is perhaps therefore my failure that what is probably Mr Green's greatest insight rather got lost in it.

This is important, so let me spell it out here.

His point - as I understand it - is not so much that we should exhort bankers and others to somehow be moral against their own self interest when they are making money for themselves. No. His point is that bankers and others should be moral in their own self interest; that they will actually find life more satisfying if they are not narrowly selfish in their behaviour.

In other words, to be happy, you need to be able to look yourself in the mirror and think - I have done something worthwhile for others as well as myself.

Stephen GreenIt turns out that there is a substantial amount of empirical economic evidence for this view. And it is perhaps a finding that should generate headlines more often than other economic news which fills the airwaves: the truly interesting economic revelation is that giving is more pleasurable than taking.

A study by Elizabeth Dunn literally handed money to people either to spend on themselves or on others, and it showed that the givers were happier afterwards than the ones who spent on themselves.

There is also evidence that volunteering is a route to happiness as well. Mr Green is surely right to remind them that there is more to life than making money.

Perhaps they should teach this in school. People do not always seem very able to judge these things for themselves.

But of course, what do you do in a world where many people act according to a different set of principles? Maybe they are not programmed like the rest of us. Maybe they get their satisfaction from being selfish!

I asked Mr Green how many people in banking might fit that bill, but he couldn't give me a clear answer.

Which I guess is why we need to regulate banks.

With people like Stephen Green in charge, one wonders how banks could have allowed themselves to become to so voracious and reckless. The answer is probably that people like him were not always in charge. HSBC, of course, has not gone bust and has not received state aid.


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