06 February 2013

How Not to Argue for Increased R&D Funding

It a remarkably tone-deaf and obtuse op-ed in the FT, physicist and Nobel prize winner Andre Geim writes the following about science investments by government:
Until 40 years ago, the threat of hot and cold wars forced countries to look for long-term advantages over potential enemies. At the risk of being simplistic, let me say this threat fed back into investment in science, which allowed the industrial revolution to continue. Today, the threat from global warming, overpopulation and scarce natural resources seems insufficiently scary.

Western governments have been folding their blue-sky programmes in response to financial restraints and voters’ negative view of academic research. Davos persuades me there is little hope of change. This would require a change in human nature. I fear economists might be right this time, and Japanese-style stagnation will look like a best-case scenario. But I have a dream. The industrial revolution and economic growth continue. This is because astrophysicists find a huge cosmic rock on course to hit Earth in 50 years. This should be scary enough. The world can surely deflect this threat but will need to develop new knowledge and technologies.
I can't imagine that science will win additional support from governments by wishing for a the possibility of global apocalypse -- even with brazen certainty that Bruce Willis can rocket up and save us -- as an excuse to boost government science funding. This is the tone-deaf part.
The obtuse part is Geim's equating of advances in basic research as both necessary and sufficient for economic growth, when neither may be the case. Geim writes:
Without new knowledge, only derivative technologies are possible – and, however important, they are incapable of sustaining the sorts of economic growth rates the world has enjoyed since the coming of the industrial revolution.
In reality the world currently is spending collectively about $1.5 trillion on R&D in the public and private sectors, growing at a rate of 5.2% and 6.5% in the past two years.

More fundamentally, R&D is no doubt important to innovation and economic growth, but the connections are not direct. I recently explained:
The integration of post-war science policy with a misinterpretation of neo-classical economic theory led to the creation of a mythology of innovation that persists today. Benoît Godin, the innovation scholar at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Montreal, explains (here in PDF) that this mythology has practical consequences:
The problem is that the academic lobby has successfully claimed a monopoly on the creation of new knowledge, and that policy-makers have been persuaded to confuse the necessary with the sufficient condition that investment in basic research would by itself necessarily lead to successful applications. Be that as it may, the framework fed policy analyses by way of taxonomies and classifications of research and, above all, it was the framework most others compared to.
So in our public debates, rather than examining innovation policies and the complexities of securing economic growth, our discussions typically devolve into simplistic appeals for more federal R&D. (The full essay is here.)
Economic scare stories from scientists coupled with dreams of disaster are not a useful approach to science policy.


  1. How do we measure the effectiveness of our investment in science? How do we prevent our investment in science from becoming a disaster like our investment in education in Chicago Public Schools where there has been no innovation or progress but only the continued chorus of corrupt benefactors of government largess, crying for more funding?

  2. It's interesting to note that the key drivers of economic growth of the past 20 years computational power and electronic miniaturization in general owe their existence to post war academic research.

  3. Roger I meant to say the don't owe....

  4. When scientists tell taxpayers that they should turn over their hard earned money to scientists, I think it's reasonable that the first inclination of taxpayers should be skepticism.

  5. This is a familiar plea. Lend us your wealth and obedience, and in exchange we promise to save you from judgment.

    Are "scientists" now in the business of selling indulgences, or is this a resurrection of the eugenics agenda, or later the global cooling threat, or various other redistributive schemes, meant to frighten people into submission?

    Intelligence never was a good indicator of integrity.

  6. Mike, I'm not going to argue that postwar academic research has not contributed to the electronics industry. Maybe I'm getting defensive because I'm in the semiconductor industry, but I see a lot of innovation coming from the commercial side. The transistor was invented at Bell Labs. Chemically amplified resists were invented at IBM.


    Immersion lithography, now a mainstay of high-volume chip manufacturing, was first implemented at ASML.

    All these examples had an academic partnership, but my point is that fundamental research was also done inside these companies.

  7. I'm sure the moon shots were lovely from the point of view of the scientists. The (non-political) return on investment sucked, to put mildly.

    Moreover, if an asteroid approached on a collision course it would be a great day for the engineers. No science would be needed though. We'd strap a big old-technology bomb to a big old-technology rocket and that would be it.

    It doesn't inspire confidence in his reflective abilities, I have to say.

  8. The economic historian Deirdre McCloskey in her monumental work Bourgeois Dignity (http://www.amazon.com/Bourgeois-Dignity-Economics-Explain-Modern/dp/0226556743) takes on the claim that science spurred the Industrial Revolution and finds it wanting (an entire chapter, 38, is dedicated to debunking the "science started the industrial revolution" myth). Science was itself a product of economic growth via the industrial revolution and not its cause. Scientists and science is usually subsidized either via the public purse or via private mechanisms. Wealth needs to be accumulated in the first place before it can be given to the scientists to do their thing. It is this simple line of logic that McCloskey uses (backed by empirical evidence of course)to debunk the myth.

  9. ===]]] More fundamentally, R&D is no doubt important to innovation and economic growth,... [[[===

    That's funny. I thought that is Geim's point - and that a reduction in funding for research may well foster stagnation.

  10. In a way this trope is to expected. Surprising how bluntly it is put in front of us: 'we have to have a new scare story which unites is all in order for resourceful R&D'.

    True, R&D spending is not causing economic growth but isn't the indirect link - via military expenditure trickling down the economy? Military Keynesianism so to speak.

  11. Bastiat debunked the broken window fallacy more than 160 years ago. It's been replaced by the broken planet fallacy.

  12. "Today, the threat from global warming, overpopulation and scarce natural resources seems insufficiently scary. "

    Someone is trying very hard to justify their membership in the Chucklehead Club.

  13. Reiner

    The Soviets tried that experiment. It bankrupted them, and along the way generated almost nothing of any scientific value.

    Military R&D is mostly too arcane to be generally useful. Better rocket fuels, for example, are not much required in civilian uses. And if a breakthrough is made (say GPS) they put an embargo on it until it is clear that the civilians have caught up anyway.

    (I find it most amusing that the very people who claim cold war victory was a result of Reagan's strategy of causing the Soviets to overspend on defence are now trying to see if the US can go the same way.)

  14. 7. Mark you missed my correction. I meant ...don't owe...