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Thursday, October 13, 2005

U.S. position on Science eroding?

Instapundit has a long post on this report in which the National Acadamy of Science claims that the U.S. advantages in science and technology have begun to erode. There are a lot of good points in the Instapundit post, some made by Glenn and others by email contributors. Let me say first, I think scientific research is a good thing, and we should do more of it. There is a definate place in this for Government funding, particularly in the 'foundational science' arena that has few, if any immediate applications. While I think more science is a good thing, I don't necessarily think that our 'losing our advantage' is necessarily a bad thing. First off, to the extent that we are losing our advantage because other countries are doing more science, that is a good thing. Scientific knowledge is not a zero sum game. If a Pakistani scientist discovers or invents something that is likely to help, not hurt, our economy. More science is better, no matter who is doing it and some of our advantage in the past has been not many other people were doing it. I would rather have less 'advantage' and more science being done in total. The other thing about this study that is interesting to think about is that probably not all 'science' is covered by it. We have in some ways a very narrow definition of science. At it's core, science is two things, understanding how the world works and then taking that understanding and using it to benefit us. From that perspective, we all do science all the time. Earlier this week I encountered this Skeptical Optomist post about Paul Romer, with links to some of his interviews and articles. Paul Romer is the New Growth Theory guru, and I think well worth paying attention to. The core of Paul's theory is that economic growth is primarily a function of ideas, better ways of doing things. While a lot of those ideas are 'scientific' a lot of them are not, or at least not very fundamental science. One of Romer's examples of a new idea that promotes economic efficiency is the redesign of coffee cups at your local Starbucks so that all sizes have the same lid. This didn't take groundbreaking science, but increased a efficiency a little in a lot of places. Thousands of similar small new ideas have as much effect, perhaps more, as the big flashy new ideas that get all the press. I think it is pretty obvious that the U.S. is the world leader on small simple new ideas by an even greater margin than it is in the area of 'big flashy' scientific ideas. As an example of this, while Japan is lauded as a technological and manufacturing leader it's economy has stagnated. This is largely do to massive inefficiencies in its domestic markets, for example, the ubiquity of 'mom and pop' stores, which are protected by the Japanese political system. In contrast, the U.S. invented Wallmart (which, love it or hate it, is an incredibly complex and technological invention.) This increase in domestic efficiency has more than offset Japan's manufacturing edge. Inventing Wallmart probably wouldn't be counted as 'science' by the National Academy, but it's contribution to our economy has been incredible. One of the things brought up in Instapundit's post is that it is hard for research scientists to get jobs, and even when they do the pay isn't that great. Some of this is a valid problem, but there is another perspective here as well. Some, probably most, of the generation of Romer's 'new ideas' is in areas that aren't really science, as I have talked about. For example, the technological aspects of generating a functional MP3 player isn't really all that hard. What is tough, is building an MP3 player that the people will love.

I would guess that the technicians behind the iPod were compensated less than the designers and marketers of the Ipod. I would also be willing to state that they deserved that compensation. Another example is the Internet. While the scientists and technicians (and Al Gore) who developed the fledgling internet did a great thing, the real heroes of the internet are a different group of people. They were the guys who figured out that the internet is a really great way to exchange porn. Without them, I am convinced that the internet would be a minor tool for academics, rather than the extremely useful tool for ordinary people that it is today. They didn't invent the technology of the internet, what they did was create a compelling reason for lots of us to start using the internet. They were basically in marketing, and as the usefulness of the internet increases dramatically with the number of users of the internet, their simple, non scientific idea has made a huge difference. Science is good, and we should definately fund it. Our economy is more dependent on lots of simple, some would say trivial, new ideas than it is on hard scientific advancement though.

8 Comments:

Blogger RFTR said...

"[Porn] is good, and we should definitely fund it," is, I think, what you meant to say...

10/13/2005 01:34:00 PM  
Blogger Ghost Dansing said...

On February 18, 2004, 62 preeminent scientists including Nobel laureates, National Medal of Science recipients, former senior advisers to administrations of both parties, numerous members of the National Academy of Sciences, and other well-known researchers released a statement titled Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making. In this statement, the scientists charged this Republican administration with widespread and unprecedented “manipulation of the process through which science enters into its decisions.”

The statement of these leading scientists is devastating. They describe the method of anti-science by the Republican Regime:

When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions. This has been done by placing people who are professionally unqualified or who have clear conflicts of interest in official posts and on scientific advisory committees; by disbanding existing advisory committees; by censoring and suppressing reports by the government’s own scientists; and by simply not seeking independent scientific advice.

The Republican Party is the party of ignorance. Science has no place in its "message", all is "on message" and all is spin.

10/13/2005 04:27:00 PM  
Blogger The probligo said...

Heh, and when do you think that science is going to be governed by its "religious correctness"?

Don't think it will happen?

Why is there so much heat about making compulsory the teaching of ID and Creationism in schools?

Only two generations and America will be a scientific backwater...

Oh, and I am talking true science here - enquiry, investigation, analysis, discovery.

Science is NOT "design a better mousetrap". That is taking existing knowledge and utilising it.

10/13/2005 05:13:00 PM  
Blogger Cubicle said...

"Science is NOT "design a better mousetrap". That is taking existing knowledge and utilising it."

I have always called that technology.

Science drives technology (in some ways).

Business drives technology (in other ways.)

Dave,

"Without them, I am convinced that the internet would be a minor tool for academics, rather than the extremely useful tool for ordinary people that it is today."

Did you just credit the sucess of the internet to the porn industry?

heh heh

10/14/2005 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger The probligo said...

"I have always called that technology.

Science drives technology (in some ways).


I agree.

But what will science be worth when scientists have to obtain Religious Permission for a research study.

After all, we can't allow a repeat of this silly atheistic "Darwin's Theory of evolution", or "Newton's Laws of Planetary Motion", or anything that might threaten the geo-centric universe now, can we!

10/16/2005 01:19:00 PM  
Blogger Dave Justus said...

The effect of philosophical debates on scientific knowledge or lack thereoff is almost always overestimated.

We could teach ID in every school in the country and it would have no material effect on the ability of the U.S. to scientifically advance. Both political parties misuse science in a variety of ways. We could debate endlessly on which is more 'harmful' to science and probably never reach a strong conclusion. Such a debate would reveal which party we were more sympathetic to, but wouldn't reveal any truth about which misuses science more. To a large extent, science is very poor at helping to answer any political questions, and turning to it is almost always a misuse of it.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't have objective facts and know what is what, and theoretically science could help there, but politics is mostly about 'ought' not 'is' and science can't tell us anything about 'ought.'

And yes Cube, off all the myriad factors that contributed to the success of the internet, the most critical is the fact that it is a great way to get porn. I am absolutely serious when I say we owe the internet to porn.

10/17/2005 05:17:00 AM  
Blogger The probligo said...

"We could teach ID in every school in the country and it would have no material effect on the ability of the U.S. to scientifically advance."

Yes, quite true.

But do you think that is as far as it would go?

Having succeeded in getting ID taught as "science" the next step is getting it taught as "more (religiously?) correct" than evolution theory. There has been a recent article appearing in the news doown this way quoting "eminent scientists" as saying ID will be as significant as the big bang in terms of the development of science. Frankly that scares the shits out of me.

It is as significant as the geo-centric universe. When will "they" want that taught in schools as an adjunct theory of astronomy? It is no less valid than ID as a scientific theory...

10/21/2005 09:00:00 AM  
Blogger Dave Justus said...

Actually, modern astronomy would put the earth as just a good of center of the universe as anywhere else. If the entire universe expanded from an explosion of a singulatity than 'everwhere' or 'anywhere' is the center of the universe.

The idea that ID, if taught in schools will morph into creationism taught in schools is pretty far fetched.

ID, if it is correct, adds to rather than removes from evolutionary theory. I believe that alternate explanations for the apparent inconcruitites in evolutionary theory will be found, but I doubt that ID will slow down finding those things. I would guess that the reverse would in fact be true.

10/21/2005 10:07:00 AM  

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