3 November 2015

The myth of innovation

What is it about the Wall Street Journal and science? It looks like any argument against state action (concerning e.g. climate change) is good, no logic required. Last week, it was the turn of state support for basic science. Matt Ridley's essay goes like this:
  1. Technology progresses inexorably.
  2. Basic science contributes nothing to new inventions.
  3. Discoveries and inventions are made independently by many people.
  4. Technology is a living organism that may soon "build and maintain itself". Innovation occurs inevitably, and people are only "pawns in the process".
  5. Prohibiting technological development does not work, and what cannot be stopped cannot be directed.
  6. Patents and prizes are inherently unfair.
  7. Technology causes advances in science, and not viceversa.
  8. As per the OECD and other sources, "publicly funded research had no economic impact whatsoever."
  9. Although publicly funded science does lead to some discoveries, we do not know what would have happened if the state would have refrained from collecting this money via taxes. Private initiative may have led to an even better outcome.
  10. Conclusion: instead of doing stuff, the government should just get out of the way!
This is a linear synopsis of the article, but the various points are interrelated (e.g. 3 and 6, 2 and 8 etc.) and fall under a few general arguments:

Technology evolves all by itself (points 1, 4 and partly 7)

This is akin to saying that our cities clean themselves: a position that contradicts some fundamental principle, but does seem to explain reality quite well (until the next garbage strike, at least).

Credit for discovery (points 3 and 6)

Discoveries are often made simultaneously by several parties (point 3), and this may be relevant to the patent system and the incentives it creates, but what does it have with the usefulness of basic science?

The causality relation between basic science and technology (points 2 and 7)

Almost by definition, basic research does not immediately yield practical results. One must follow the causal chain a couple of steps further. Speaking of causality, Ridley confuses the efficient and the final causes (in Aristotle's terms): it may well be that innovation is the (final) cause for advances in basic science by providing the motivation and financial incentive, but basic science can still be the (efficient) cause of innovation.

Return on investment (points 8-10)

If basic science contributes nothing to economic growth (a big if, considering that electricity was once studied with no hope for applications), maybe the state should refrain from financing it and let private actors do their work. It so happens that the French state goes even further, by subsidizing private research, with almost no strings attached, to the tune of several billion euros per year (much more than any other OECD country.) However, this does not lead to faster technical advances in France, and the mechanism is largely seen as ineffective.

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