Konstantin Kakaes tells us to chill out and stop worrying about Chinese science:
The bible of the competitiveness crowd is a National Academy of Sciences report calledRising Above the Gathering Storm. (In terms of melodramatic white paper titles, the United States is surely a world leader. The report was first issued in 2005; a 2010 revision was subtitled: Rapidly Approaching Category 5.) The 2010 report notes, “30 years ago the United States had 30 percent of the world’s college students. Today we are at 14 percent and falling.” This is cited as evidence of a decline in American competitiveness. But that’s like saying the United States has a smaller percentage of the world’s well-nourished people than it did 30 years ago. It is good for people around the world to go to college and be well-fed. Neither takes anything away from the United States.
The competition rhetoric is almost always linked with calls for increased investment in research. But as Argentino Pessoa of the University of Porto, among others, has pointed out, there is a slight negative correlation between R&D intensity and GDP growth—in other words, spending more on research doesn’t necessarily make you richer. Amar Bhide, in his book The Venturesome Economy, cites the example of Norway, which isn’t even in the top 20 countries ranked by share of scientific papers published, but has the highest labor productivity in the world.
Knowledge—of which technology is a kind—gets shared widely. A Dec. 7 New York Timesarticle called “China Scrambles for High Tech Dominance” gets it exactly wrong. “If the future of the Internet is already in China, is the future of computing there as well?” The future of the Internet isn’t in China any more than the present of the Internet is in the U.S. Technonationalists (as Bhide calls the competitiveness caucus) like to trumpet the fact that Google is an American company. But the benefits of quartering Google’s corporate headquarters are dwarfed by the benefits of using Google (and its peers, like Baidu, a Chinese search engine) and other revolutionary technologies. And those benefits get spread widely. The Internet, for example, was invented in the United States—but that does not mean we get the most benefit from it.
I’m sure that Matt Yglesias has forgotten more economics in the past hour than I will ever know. And yet, he believes that “if spending on military robotics declines then our most talented roboticists will focus more of their time and attention on civilian applications.” Really? Military spending doesn’t affect the overall demand for engineers and scientists? It’s just as likely that if spending on military robotics declines our most talented roboticists will leave robotics and science altogether. If Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, etc. weren’t hiring, many of my friends would be out of a job, not making snazzy commercial gadgets.
Several liberal bloggers protested the Times suggestion that cutting the Defense budget will reduce innovation. While some of their points are well-taken (the DOD budget is almost certainly bloated and wasteful), they all unfortunately make two big mistakes: they equate defense research with weapons research, and they neglect the role of deployment in bringing technology to scale.
Here is Robert Wright’s flawed analysis, typical among the group:
Defense department research, in contrast, focuses on services that people are more ambivalent about–like getting blown up. If more benign services get developed in the process–like if blowing people up involves technologies that help them play digital music–that’s a happy accident.
Wright’s simplistic link between DOD research and weapons ignores the synergies between civilian and military technologies. At some point the DARPA-funded optical interconnects that my girlfriend studies may improve weapons. But in the short run, they have a much better chance of reducing energy use.
At least in universities, DOD complements rather than competes with civilian agencies, and they all fund similar work. Everyone in my lab did the same sort of space physics research. Some of us were funded by the Air Force, some by the Office of Naval Research, and some by NSF. While the emphases may have differed slightly, there was a lot of overlap. That’s why we all had the same advisor. I’m sure there’s a similar dynamic in quantum computing funded by DARPA, the NSF, and DOE.
The existence of multiple funding agencies is one of the main strengths of U.S. science. They foster diverse approaches and ensure that a single paradigm doesn’t dominate. It wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing if all of DOD quantum computing money were transferred to the NSF. We want many groups attacking the same problem and we should be happy DOD is part of the mix.
Now if all we care about is research production, we may be fine with just two or three agencies funding science. Especially if DOD is as inefficient as they suggest, we may be better off transferring half the DOD research budget to NSF and DOE.
But we don’t care about research for the sake of research. We want to drive innovation, which depends on much more than government funding. Which brings me to the second mistake Wright et. al. make: ignoring the importance of deployment.
As David Roberts noted, technology deployment is itself a form of research. It’s one thing to make a neat device in your lab. It’s quite another to scale the product, align it with customer needs, bypass regulatory hurdles, and market it successfully. I can’t tell how routine it is for a company to fail for these reasons even if they have the science locked down. As great as NSF research is, it’s only a small part of the picture.
Computers are commonplace not only because smart physicists figured out quantum mechanics. It’s also because we learned how to make lots of computer chips cheaply and quickly. The DOD role in this development has been crucial. Precisely because they are so massive and relatively price-insensitive, they enabled large-scale deployment and the learning that goes along with it.
Cliff Bob shows that he doesn’t understand any of this:
Nowhere in the article is there anything but assumption that only the military, as some kind of beneficent and far-seeing midwife of invention, could have fostered these and other innovations. Nowhere are there convincing arguments that most if not all of these developments wouldn’t have been made either through some other government R & D agency or through the market itself.
Nowhere in Bob’s article is there anything but the wrong assumption that “these developments” occurred primarily because of an R&D agency rather than procurement and deployment. In some cases DOD was the only market in existence because no one else could afford the technology. Only after DOD brought down the price of semiconductors did we all benefit.
DOD may very well be wasteful and inefficient. Maybe in 2012 it’s not the best way to drive innovation and perhaps negatives now outweigh the positives . Those are fair arguments. But to debate the point intelligently, we have to first rid ourselves of the myopic view that money is all that matters. DOD funding is associated with scale and deployment, key components of innovation and commercialization. (See Roger for more along these lines.)
The most depressing part about all this is how otherwise brilliant writers make bafflingly simplistic arguments when it comes to innovation policy. Is it really so hard to understand that innovation requires more than government funding of R&D?
While I slowed down a bit in December (cut me some slack, it’s the holidays!), I’m pretty proud of this year. As always, some changes in the works. Thanks to everyone who followed, and I look forward to 2012.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,400 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.