WSJ swipes at science

Rather interesting piece by Matt Ridley in the WSJ, making the case that spending on basic science is a waste. It’s definitely worth a read for it’s world-tipped-on-its-side-itude. [ Ridley, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, has some interesting views about many things, so a scan of his wikipedia page, linked above, is worthwhile if you’re going to read the article. ]

Though I will happily grant the author the point that the linear model of:

is incorrect and simplistic, I don’t think that’ll be news to anyone who has ever spent a few minutes thinking about any of those things. Yes, technological advance is chaotic. Yes, innovation comes from many places, and the arrows are not always in the same direction.


But stating that the direction is not always from science to tech is a very far cry from proving that we can get away without science altogether.

He’s right, of course, that not all science leads to anything particularly valuable, and even when it does, it’s hard to know in advance what will and won’t. Sometimes hundreds of years can pass between a discovery and the moment society knows what to do with it.

In fact, it is for those very reasons and man more that it makes sense for governments to fund science.

The rest of the piece is, unfortunately, worse. I don’t have enough time to criticize all the arguments in the piece, but a few quick call-outs:

In 2007, the economist Leo Sveikauskas of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that returns from many forms of publicly financed R&D are near zero and that “many elements of university and government research have very low returns, overwhelmingly contribute to economic growth only indirectly, if at all.”

You don’t say? Yeah, you can’t point to the monetary benefits of science because it does not directly generate monetary benefits. I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that you can’t sell public knowledge? But you can use it to make things, and sell those. Or use it to direct your own research and make something of that. Whodathunk? Also, in the process, you get a bunch of educated people that private actors will hire to make things.

And, by the way, there are good reason to finance science with public money. Here’s one:

Let’s say knowledge “A”, obtained at cost a’ can be combined by technology entrepreneurs, P,Q,R to generate wealth p’,q’,r’. Without government funding of science, unless p’,q’,r’ each individually are more than a’, it won’t happen, because in the private investment scenario, the private investors has to recoup their costs alone. Even if p’ > a’, we still won’t see any of q’ and r’.  But with the public investment to get A, we get all of p’,q’,r’. When you throw in the uncertainty of the value of A at the time that it is being generated, it’s even harder for the private sector to justify. This has been known for a good while.

[ Aside: this is and other interesting aspects of innovation are covered in great detail, by the way, in the late Suzanne Scotchmer’s well thought out book, Innovation and Incentives. ]

Ridley also has a weird theory that technology has become a living organism, desiring to and able to perpetuate itself. I don’t half understand what that means, but it’s a strange foundation for an argument that government science doesn’t matter:

Increasingly, technology is developing the kind of autonomy that hitherto characterized biological entities. The Stanford economist Brian Arthur argues that technology is self-organizing and can, in effect, reproduce and adapt to its environment. It thus qualifies as a living organism, at least in the sense that a coral reef is a living thing. Sure, it could not exist without animals (that is, people) to build and maintain it, but then that is true of a coral reef, too.

And who knows when this will no longer be true of technology, and it will build and maintain itself? To the science writer Kevin Kelly, the “technium”—his name for the evolving organism that our collective machinery comprises—is already “a very complex organism that often follows its own urges.” It “wants what every living system wants: to perpetuate itself.”

Even if this is true, why believe that the innovation we would get from a purely technologically driven progress is the “best” innovation we can get, or even the innovation we want? Oh, that’s right, in the libertarian mindset, “we” doesn’t exist. So, it’s a good thing if, say, industry sink billions into fantastic facial moisturizer while cures for diseases that only affect the poor go unfunded.

Here’s another groaner:

To most people, the argument for public funding of science rests on a list of the discoveries made with public funds, from the Internet (defense science in the U.S.) to the Higgs boson (particle physics at CERN in Switzerland). But that is highly misleading. Given that government has funded science munificently from its huge tax take, it would be odd if it had not found out something. This tells us nothing about what would have been discovered by alternative funding arrangements.

And we can never know what discoveries were not made because government funding crowded out philanthropic and commercial funding, which might have had different priorities. In such an alternative world, it is highly unlikely that the great questions about life, the universe and the mind would have been neglected in favor of, say, how to clone rich people’s pets.

Ah, yes, the “counterfactual would have been better” argument. Of course, it comes with no particular theory or reason why private incentives would advance science, only the assertion that it would. Except, it turns out we do, in fact, have counterfactuals, because there are countries all around the world through history that made different prioritization of science, along with associated outcomes, and the answer is quite grim for the laissez faire folks, I’m afraid.

The rest of the article trots out a bunch of examples of interesting and important technologies, such as the steam engine, that came into being more or less without the underlying science to back them up. But I can make a list, too. Wozniak and Jobs made a computer in their garage, and — bang! — there came the internet. Except, the were already standing on giants, including boatloads of government-funded basic research (a lot of it defense-driven, yes) from which sprung semiconductors and the very notions of electronic computer. (Turing, Von Neumann)

Or lets take a look at radio. Sure, Marconi doing some early tinkering with spark gap transmitters allowed us to get some dit-dahs across the Atlantic without too much understanding, but even he was standing on Maxwell. And besides, the modern digital communications would not be possible without the likes of Fourier, Shannon, Nyquist, Hartley, all of which were doing science. (Some in private labs, though.)

I’m not historian of science, so I hope to soon read blogs from such people responding to this piece.

I’m unsettled by something else, though:

This is a full-throated, direct attack on government-funded science itself, printed in a mainstream publication.

It was not long ago that no serious political ideology in the US would have been broadly anti- public science research. Sure, we’ve seen serious efforts to undermine science in certain areas: climate change, danger of pesticides, etc, but nobody has come straight out and said that government should get out of the science business entirely.

Should be interesting to see if this is the start of a new long-term strategy or just one man’s rant.



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