Science, Technology, and Public Funding

24 October 2015 at 3:28 pm Leave a comment

| Peter Klein |

This piece by Matt Ridley builds on Terence Kealey’s critique of government science funding, and also echoes Nathan Rosenberg’s critique of the linear model of science and technology. We have pointed out similarly that arguments for public science funding are usually not very scientific.

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.

Technological advances are driven by practical men who tinkered until they had better machines; abstract scientific rumination is the last thing they do. As Adam Smith, looking around the factories of 18th-century Scotland, reported in “The Wealth of Nations”: “A great part of the machines made use in manufactures…were originally the inventions of common workmen,” and many improvements had been made “by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines.”

It follows that there is less need for government to fund science: Industry will do this itself. Having made innovations, it will then pay for research into the principles behind them. Having invented the steam engine, it will pay for thermodynamics.

I have argued repeatedly against the “laundry list” rationale for public funding, the listing of technologies and products that came out of government programs, as if that were justification for these programs. Ridley agrees:

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.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Myths and Realities.

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