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Does Scientific Research Cause Economic Growth?

Posted Mar 29 2013 12:00am

Many scientists say that science should be funded because it leads to economic growth. Today’s discovery, tomorrow’s new product, that sort of thing. It’s certainly plausible that more research will produce more growth.

Terence Kelley, a biochemist who was vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, points out that some facts do not support this argument:

Two key pieces, one British, one American. The British one is very simple. The British agricultural and industrial revolutions took place in the 18th and 19th centuries in the complete absence of the government funding of science. It simply wasn’t government policy. The British government only started to fund science because of the Great War [World War I]. The funding has increased heavily ever since, and there has been absolutely no improvement in our underlying rate of economic growth.

But the really fascinating example is the States, because it’s so stunningly abrupt. Until 1940 it was American government policy not to fund science. Then, bang, the American government goes from funding something like $20 million of basic science to $3,000 million, over the space of 10 or 15 years. I mean, it’s an unbelievable increase, which continues all the way to the present day. And underlying rates of economic growth in the States simply do not change.

I believe the connection between research and economic growth is complicated. Veblen was certainly right, “pure” (= useless) research is high-status, “applied” (= useful) research is low-status. In the long run, this is a good way to allocate effort because although almost all the “pure” research is useless, a tiny fraction is not. And that tiny fraction might never have been done if pure research weren’t high-status.

Yet after pure research turns up useful stuff, professional scientists have serious difficulty making something useful from it. Almost all of my discoveries, such as the Shangri-La Diet and the effect of morning faces on mood, relied heavily on pure research. Without the pure research, I couldn’t have made them. The “pure” discoveries I used were well-known yet professional scientists were unable to grasp how they could be turned into something useful. I was able to go further than them for three reasons: 1. I was willing to spend a long time (decades) on a one problem. Professional scientists can’t wait that long. 2. I was trying to find a useful solution. Professional scientists tend to think useful research is low-status, as I said. 3. Studying myself instead of other people made me much more sensitive to unexpected effects.

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