“Surprising, occasionally game-changing things happen when flights of unorthodox thinking collide with large, abiding research budgets,” writes Mary Roach in her book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Militaries face far more than just opposing combatants in war. Their needs go far beyond bombs, tanks, and fighter planes. Armies need lots of things for basic survival, and sometimes this means that large research budgets are devoted to small topics where institutionalized dogma has not set in. The results can be weird, sometimes less than what the army hoped for, and – as Roach notes in the quote above – sometimes game changing.
In Grunt, Roach highlights some of the examples of incredible, yet unexpected scientific breakthroughs that have come from military research. Medical trauma research, clothing research, and other less thought of research has been crucial for saving lives during war. These are not the first things we usually think about with armed conflict, but without winning in these small areas, armies may not be able to win on larger geopolitical stages.
Entire industries and societies may deal with problems for years without the huge funding and sometimes unorthodox thinking that an army can bring to a problem. Something small, like sweaty and sticky shirts, may plague people for years and be a minor annoyance, but for an army, where keeping moral and camaraderie up is a key for success, a sweaty and sticky shirt could end up being a life or death matter. Bringing in a scientific research team, that doesn’t have the same constraints as public researchers at a university or researchers for a for-profit corporation can open up new avenues of discovery. A researcher at a public university may be shunned away from research on sweaty, sticky shirts because they don’t want their colleagues to think they are working on a goofy topic. Private companies may not see enough of a profit motive in researching sweaty, sticky clothes and may not hire anyone in their R&D section to focus on the issue. But the army can provide some level of intellectual freedom in asking researchers to tackle strange areas and can bring the necessary funding to find a breakthrough. This idea is at the heart of the research that Roach presents in the book.
The sometimes game-changing breakthroughs are not the result purely of lots of money or purely unorthodox thinking. The breakthroughs are the result of a web of factors that include the money, the intellectual space for unorthodox thinking, and the willingness to allow people to focus on sometimes narrow or obscure topics. It also requires obsessives who are not afraid to spend years researching something strange or off-putting. the kinds of breakthroughs people make often don’t get much attention, even if they are very important and make it into daily life beyond the initial military use, but over time they pile up to become part of our way of life. Perhaps we would have gotten there independently of the military, but sometimes that extra funding and unorthodox thinking is needed to help push new innovations and discoveries.