Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Science of Politics

I'm a big fan of Peter Thiel - he puts his (own) money where his mouth is. But even he is worried about the West's long-run capacity for growth, partly due to the politicization of science. This from a fascinating discussion with Francis Fukuyama, firstly on the slowdown in growth:
There has been a tremendous slowdown everywhere else, however. Look at transportation, for example: Literally, we haven’t been moving any faster. The energy shock has broadened to a commodity crisis. In many other areas the present has not lived up to the lofty expectations we had. I think the advanced economies of the world fundamentally grow through technological progress, and as their rate of progress slows, they will have less growth. This creates incredible pressures on our political systems. I think the political system at its core works when it crafts compromises in which most people benefit most of the time. When there’s no growth, politics becomes a zero-sum game in which there’s a loser for every winner. Most of the losers will come to suspect that the winners are involved in some kind of racket. So I think there’s a close link between technological deceleration and increasing cynicism and pessimism about politics and economics. 
Then on politicians and science:
You can’t just write checks to the thirty smartest scientists in the United States. Instead there are bureaucratic processes, and I think the politicization of science—where a lot of scientists have to write grant applications, be subject to peer review, and have to get all these people to buy in—all this has been toxic, because the skills that make a great scientist and the skills that make a great politician are radically different. There are very few people who are both great scientists and great politicians. So a conservative account of what happened with science in the 20th century is that we had a decentralized, non-governmental approach all the way through the 1930s and early 1940s. At that point, the government could accelerate and push things tremendously, but only at the price of politicizing it over a series of decades. Today we have a hundred times more scientists than we did in 1920, but their productivity per capita is less that it used to be.
Do read the whole interview. Meantime, our own Chris Horn has voiced similar concerns about what is going on in Ireland:

In contrast I believe most long-established Irish organisations — in the civil service, in the political elite, in most media companies, in the legal profession, in the medical sector, in established banking and business, in religious institutions — are strictly hierarchical, not least to protect embarrassment to senior figures from challenges by young upstarts. And yet the technology sector thrives on disruption, creativity and rapid improvisation. 
Part of the reason is our republican view of Irish culture. We embrace literature, art, music and dance, and especially accomplishment in sport, all as the essence of Irish culture. Yet we rarely embrace scientific discovery and technological insight as likewise having cultural value that can enrich society. There is little scientific discussion in our national media, mainstream journalists often seem largely disinterested, and our public service broadcaster RTE almost completely ignores the topic. Review the number of pages in a newspaper, or hours of broadcasting, devoted to literature, arts, music, dance and especially sport, compared with science and technology. Our politicians may occasionally turn up to open a new venture, but rarely seem to consider technology policy and its potential and actual impact on our society at large.
It looks like returning to a long-run growth path is going to be an even bigger challenge for Ireland - as for everywhere else. Though it might be easier if the politicians got out of the way...


  1. I think what is being described here is simply the dead hand of bureaucracy. Indeed, it is having a stultifying effect throughout society, not just in the areas of science and technology. Politicians, of course, love bureaucracy, because it is the main means by which they can deploy influence and justify their own existence. So, the 'red tape' they constantly decry ends up being produced in ever-greater quantities at their secret behest.

  2. Yes, there is a form of centralized political control at work, tending to reinforce a certain bias or a certain direction in scientific discovery and invention.

    But what is this ideological bias? That is the question.

    Might I be so bold as to suggest this bias pertains to market priorities?

    What is entailed in the fact universities and the people working in them need to survive in a market-lead economy (implying that business and entertainment priorities usually dominate)?

    What is entailed in the fact they must keep business happy (who promote values of materialism and consumerism as well as a conservative respect for the status quo and establishment.)?

    Might I recommend this paper 'The Republic of Science' by Michael Polanyi who was a great free market thinker.



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