Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Republic of Science: Is it pure or applied?

“I know I waste half my advertising dollars…I just wish I knew what half.” Henry Proctor of Proctor and Gamble, 1895.

Well, the goings on at Royal Society in 1947 aside, Micheal Polanyi in his discussion on the spontaneous institute of science brings up a very touchy issue: should science be publicly funded? To what extent? And how will that affect spontaneity? These are the issues I feel most relevant today. It is clear the balance must be set to maximize innovation, but who is to set the balance and how? The only assumption that can be counted on is that economies benefit when science advances, so long as those advances get to markets.

I have heard the institution of science (assuming you really can lump it all together) best described as a herd of cats; imagine a mob of anti-social, self-interested, and an otherwise disinterested scatter shot of animals pursing only their own curiosity, stopping intermittently to cat-fight and scratch. It is often serendipity that disparate findings come together to make anything useful. There have been certain instances where mega-projects set out to discover a ‘known’ unknown, like the Large Hadron Super Collider, or Intel pursuing the ever faster chip, but these comprise the minority of total science research. The majority of research is low budget with only a few scientists working on a project.

As expected both the private and public sector spend lots on research and science, but not all science is the same. Unlike in Polanyi’s time, science is seen today as either pure or applied. Pure science is science for science’s sake, like an entomologist researching a rare beetle’s excretion habits, while applied would is more like a scientist trying to find a brighter, more efficient LCD screen. Businesses will surely invest in applied research, much to their benefit. Government and academia will support pure as well as applied science, but for the general benefit. Both branches of science are indispensable, yet it is pure research that may suffer the most when government funding declines. Does business spend less on pure science because they know government will pick up the slack? Would the private sector spend more on pure science if it knew that government was not going to? Well, probably not, one caveat of pure science is that its value lies in the fact that it’s freely shared. Most privately funded science is only shared after its commercial potential has been exhausted. It is pure science that stand to loose the most without government funding. Well, naturally as economists we must question the purity of ‘pure’ science.

Scientists, despite the anit-social cat allusion, still must answer to someone, whether it is the National Science Foundation, NOAA, NASA, or whatever. Funding comes from somewhere and grants tend to land in the coffers of those who agree with whichever agency is doing the funding, or those that can garner the most attention for the agency doing the funding. This calls into question purity of ‘pure’ science, particularly when the topic is very politically charged like health care, or climate change. I am not at all calling the majority of scientists data manipulators, but simply natural extensions of the way systems work, spontaneous or otherwise. People in charge will instinctively, whether consciously or unconsciously, fund those who agree with them. It is incentivized (is that a word?) behavior and it is completely rational. With that said, private industry research cannot create its own weather so to speak, it must answer to a higher burden of proof and viability: the market.

I am hesitant to draw too strong of conclusions about science and the market, I feel the market can and should play a larger role in science, but that would come with some heavy drawbacks, perhaps outweighed by the benefits, perhaps not. There is a strong consensus that all science is good, and more is better, and i'm inclined to agree. Yet what are the mechanisms to weed out bad science, or eniefficient and useless science? Roayal societies, journals and pannels? Sure they work, and plenty of incentives for good science are out there, but who really benifits from a piece of obscure 'good' science that stays locked up in some herpatologists file cabinet in an obscure windowless office of a small univeristy? Often 'pure' scientiests are hostile to commercial and market interests, yet what they don't realize is that for society to benifit from their research, findings must be brought to the market.

With that said, Micheal Polanyi, mentions how critical it is to have a ‘policing body’ of sorts. A panel of experts that rejects abnormal results, or results that disagree with the panel’s findings. However, “health care legislation recently passed by the United States Senate would allow federal agencies to punish organizations whose researchers publish results that conflict with what the agency feels is appropriate.” (George Avery). Mr. Avery, in an opinion piece for the Cato Institute, February 8th (link below), sees this as an open invitation for federal agencies to abuse and manipulate findings, to cook data, naturally in their favor. I thought it an interesting counter to Mr. Polanyi’s suggested method of policing the ‘Republic of Science’.

Scientific Misconduct: The Manipulation of Evidence for Political Advocacy in Health Care and Climate Policy: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=11201

1 comment:

  1. I think that you really do have a good point in clearly making a distinction between "applied" and "pure" science and how the type of science can drastically impact the incentive structure behind its funding, research, and research presentation.