The Question Concerning Scientific Research

Long_Room_Interior,_Trinity_College_Dublin,_Ireland_-_DiliffDoes scientific research drive innovation? Matt Ridley thinks that the evolution of technology has little to do with public funded scientific research. In “The Myth of Basic Science”, he makes the case that it is quite the opposite: technology leads scientific research.

Building on recent works by Brian Arthur and Kevin Kelly—who see technology as an autonomous entity—and a few references to the economic literature on innovation and growth, he concludes that the generally accepted linear model of innovation—science drives innovation, which then drives commerce—is all but a dogma. Technological advances are driven by practical men who tinker to create better machines. There is no need for government to fund science. Industry will do it itself, because innovations themselves will pay for research into the principles behind them. It is the invention of the steam engine which will pay for thermodynamics, and not the other way around:

When you examine the history of innovation, you find, again and again, that scientific breakthroughs are the effect, not the cause, of technological change. It is no accident that astronomy blossomed in the wake of the age of exploration. The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine. The discovery of the structure of DNA depended heavily on X-ray crystallography of biological molecules, a technique developed in the wool industry to try to improve textiles.

According to Ridley, the argument for public funding of science rests on a list of discoveries made with public funds, from the Internet (defense science in the U.S.) to the Higgs boson (particle physics at CERN in Switzerland). Ridley thinks this is 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.

When the government spends money on the wrong kind of science, it stops researchers from working on the right kind of science. Public funding crowds out private funding.

Then, the question is: what is the right kind of science? And who have the right or the power to decide about it? Of course, the debate is not new. Philosophical discussion of questions relating to technology dates back to the very dawn of Western philosophy, and the relationship between science and technology has been a matter of intense debate, at least since mid 19th century.

There is a close relationship between science and technology, but there is a subtle and key difference between them: Henryk Skolimowski in 1966, and Herbert Simon in his well-known book “The sciences of the artificial” in 1969, emphasized this important distinction in almost the same words: the scientist is concerned with how things are but the engineer with how things ought to be. Science aims to understand the world as it is, technology aims to change the world.

“Changing the world” are big words. And looking at technology as a weapon aiming to change the world, makes it easier to understand why the question concerning who should pay for its development, is the subject of such intense, acrimonious debate. Technology is ultimately about power. Governments, corporations and individuals who fight for having a say about tomorrow’s world, will do what it takes to control the means to shape the future according to their interests. Technology is nowadays’ most powerful army.

Matt Ridley is mostly right. Of course, the linear model of innovation is for teachers and consultants. Innovation is a weed. Of course, copying other people’s, firms’ or countries’ innovations is not so easy, because tacit knowledge plays a key role in technology. And of course, governments will try to crowd out competitors. In exactly the same way that Silicon Valley private investment today are crowding out most other regions’ ventures.

Not everybody understand it. There are many people who still have a rosy view of innovation—a nice to have decoration for their corporate or public strategy. For these people, the question of who should fund innovation may look like a boring theoretical exercise. But for those who have a clearer down-to-earth idea about innovation, the question boils down to, not who should, but who can.

Who will fund scientific research and innovation? Those who can, of course.


(1) Matt Ridley’s WSJ article is an excerpt of the chapter “Evolution of Technology” from author’s book “The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge”

Featured Image: Long Room Interior, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland


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