Johann-Dietrich Wörner, Chairman of the DLR
The question of ‘return on investment’, or the gains to be derived from funds made
available, is no longer restricted to the accounting departments of industrial companies.
It is now a part of many aspects of life, and people try to make investment decisions
under the dictate of benefit. The matter of ‘whether it is worth it’ seems especially
justified when it comes to the use of public funds. In this case, ‘central’ standards are
used to measure the benefits and associate them with the cost.
This practice is not new. Even Columbus solicited funding for his expeditions based
on the expected benefits – as did other explorers. Many examples in research show that
the desired association between investment and return can often only be accounted for
after a long period of time. When Faraday, who discovered that electricity can be gene-
rated by induction, was asked about the practical worth of electricity, he said: “I do not
know, but there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it!” The revolutio-
nary and fundamental theoretical work of Albert Einstein on relativity only delivered its
practical benefits several decades later in satellite navigation, where a failure to take into
account the dependency of time on speed and gravity would lead to unacceptable loca-
tion errors. When researchers were studying Venus in detail (why exactly, lawyers asked
of the benefits, when we have enough problems here on Earth), they discovered the
greenhouse effect. A similar phenomenon was later found on Earth. How can we know
in advance what the possible benefits of our study of Dark Matter or Dark Energy, which
together make up 96 percent of the Universe, will be?
The purpose of this observation is to point out the need for a broad understanding
of research; from basic research to applied research and through to product development
– it is sometimes a long and time-consuming journey, but one that is well worth embar-
king on. At DLR, we are trying to make the innovation chain as seamless as possible,
from invention to innovation, from an initial idea to a groundbreaking new product. In
doing so, we also collaborate with partners to develop ideas into products, for example,
or to transfer technologies from one of our research areas – aeronautics, spaceflight,
energy, transport and security – to a completely different field of application, such as
agriculture or medicine.
However, research has an additional advantage – it encourages people to support
a cause. The Apollo Moon programme gave scientific activities in the United States an
enormous boost and, in particular, fascinated and inspired a generation of young people.
With German Aerospace Day, we want to, with our partners, demonstrate to
everyone – but especially women and young people – the accomplishments we have
to show now. Investing only in research where the benefits can be determined in
advance is not worthwhile in the long term.
... is it worth it?
and the question of costs and benefits
By Johann-Dietrich Wörner