I have commented favourably on Matt Ridley’s work a few times (for example, here, and here). He is an entertaining writer, well-read and wide-ranging. He wrote a typically engaging piece in the Wall Street Journal a week or so ago, and when I had finished it I had an unexpected reaction: I just didn’t agree with him. His essay is called ‘The Myth of Basic Science’, and its general argument is that the old linear model of technological development — that basic research leads to applied research, which leads to commercial applications, which lead to technological development — is flawed beyond repair. It follows that we do not need to fund basic research from taxation.
Technological development, he argues, is self-perpetuating. It has become ‘a spontaneous phenomenon’. Here is what I think is the core of the argument:
To the science writer Kevin Kelly, the “technium”—his name for the evolving organism that our collective machinery comprises—is already “a very complex organism that often follows its own urges.” It “wants what every living system wants: to perpetuate itself.” By 2010, the Internet had roughly as many hyperlinks as the brain has synapses. Today, a significant proportion of the whispering in the cybersphere originates in programs—for monitoring, algorithmic financial trading and other purposes—rather than in people. It is already virtually impossible to turn the Internet off. The implications of this new way of seeing technology—as an autonomous, evolving entity that continues to progress whoever is in charge—are startling. People are pawns in a process. We ride rather than drive the innovation wave. Technology will find its inventors, rather than vice versa.
He has some neat examples of this process from the past, in both technology and science: [Kelly offers] six different inventors of the thermometer, three of the hypodermic needle, four of vaccination, five of the electric telegraph, four of photography, five of the steamboat, six of the electric railroad. The history of inventions, writes the historian Alfred Kroeber, is “one endless chain of parallel instances.”
It follows that if there is no stopping technology, perhaps there is no steering it either. In Mr. Kelly’s words, “the technium wants what evolution began.” Technological change is a far more spontaneous phenomenon than we realize. Out with the heroic, revolutionary story of the inventor, in with the inexorable, incremental, inevitable creep of innovation. Simultaneous discovery and invention mean that both patents and Nobel Prizes are fundamentally unfair things.
Kevin Kelly appears in each of these three extracts, and it is plain to me that Matt Ridley agrees with him. I haven’t read Kelly, but I know that his interest is in cybernetics and in systems approaches to everything. Perhaps he’s right, but I have my reservations. It’s all a bit like Gaia, though in electronic form, and offers the prospect of technology’s taking over — rather in the fashion of Hal 9000, the spaceship computer in Kubrick’s ‘2000 — A space odyssey’, with his chilling ‘Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that’.
But let that pass. Even if I agree that inventions come when they are ready to come, rather than because a single inventor’s genius was at work, it doesn’t follow that basic research was unnecessary, or not a part of the process, or that public funding is not required for some of it at least. Ridley’s article drew 800 comments, most of them critical, and stimulated others to write equally lengthy rejoinders (for example, this one). Above and beyond general intellectual engagement in these comments was the fear that someone in authority would take notice of Ridley’s argument, and reduce the public funding of basic science, or abandon it altogether.
Ridley’s actual take on the funding question is a bit on the muddled side. Though his last sentence seems clear enough — Deep scientific insights are the fruits that fall from the tree of technological change — what precedes it is not so clear. Ridley uses yet another writer, Terence Kealey (a biochemist turned economist, who has written about the economics of public science funding), to argue this way: … the linear dogma so prevalent in the world of science and politics—that science drives innovation, which drives commerce—is mostly wrong. It misunderstands where innovation comes from. Indeed, it generally gets it backward.
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.
I’m not much persuaded. How do we know which is the chicken and which the egg? You could argue that the discovery of the basic physics underlying thermodynamics preceded the development of the steam engine, though it is true there was not any public funding involved there (or for much else in the 18th century, for that matter). I’m no great believer in the linear model, and said so (to considerable flak) in the 1980s. At the same time, virtually all our technologists today have gone through education and training in which scientific understanding of fundamental laws has been key to their skills. They were taught by people who undertook basic research at a high level, and their knowledge, which increases all the time, defines the water level, so to speak, in the tank of knowledge.
As that level rises, so do the possibilities for further technological development. To use an example thrown at me by medical scientists in the 1980s, had applied research and industry funding been the sole keys to polio, we would have state-of-the art iron lungs today. Pure research in another area provided the Salk and Sabine vaccines, and an end both to poliomyelitis and the iron lung. I see a kind of long-term partnership in all this, not the domination of one kind of activity over the other.
It’s easy to overdo the linear model, and easier still to demolish it. After twenty years or so of public funding for basic research, as chairman I could only produce one patent to satisfy a critical Minister, and had to argue for continued funding on other grounds. Ridley is right to point to the sheer size and scale of basic research and of technology — in Australia it is roughly four times larger than was the case in the early to mid 1980s. The ABS now defines it as an ‘industry’.
Public funding will continue because we don’t know, and would sensibly fear, all the consequences of not funding. I have my criticisms of what we are funding, especially in the ‘climate change’ domain, but that is another matter. If I were still advising the Minister today I would have some serious suggestions for change, but a reduction of funding would not be one of them. I am reminded of Frank Winfield Woolworth’s response to an advertising man who said he could save half of Woolworth’s advertising expenditure. ‘Ah,’ said the founder of the chain. ‘Which half?’