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Sunday, February 21, 2010


Jerry Pournelle has posted a comment from me about the suggestion I reported on an earlier thread here that the net effect of government funding of science has been negative.
"...a devastating critique of states' failure to fund economically useful knowledge, and suggests that all spending on "technologies of the future" is likely to wind up down the drain.

Professor Kealey is not promoting some off-the-wall, right-wing economic theory. A comprehensive 2003 study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development titled "The Sources of Economic Growth in OECD Countries," found that the only useful R&D came from private sources and that public R&D funding tended to have negative consequences.

Professor Kealey provides the history and psychology behind this inconvenient truth, and sets out to explode the pervasive notion -- first propounded by the prototypical 17th-century English policy wonk, Sir Francis Bacon -- that science is a "public good" that needs to be promoted by governments.

In a sweeping analysis, Professor Kealey notes that advances in both science and technology have -- from the steam engine to radio astronomy -- come overwhelmingly from the private sector. "Powerful" states, from Egypt through China to modern Russia, have held up technological advance rather than promoted it....

Professor Kealey notes that government funding tends to corrupt science, but unfortunately does not go into the currently most dangerous example: that of state-funded "climate science" -- although he does refer to the establishment pogrom against the environmental skepticism of Bjorn Lomborg."

Original here

Counterintuitive that all that money spent could have negative effects but the OECD, a pan-governmental bureaucracy, is unlikely to overestimate the harm caused by government bureaucracies. If true "catastrophic global warming" may be just the tumour that has broken the skin. I would hope that as X-Prizes, though government funded, don't control who gets them or the methods they use, they would minimise the negative effects while maximising the positive.

Government funding tends to work on the basis of finding the desired answer & backing it. When it guesses the right answer, such as supporting railways in the 19thC, that works very well but when it guesses wrong, as in global warming, radiation hormesis, AIDS, environmental catastrophism, all the way down to subsidising declining industries, it is not only harmful but, because government has close to a monopoly of power there is no negative feedback & so it keeps on pushing the nonsense long after it is clear, by any objective measure, that it is nonsense. I am not sure if there are any examples of western governments getting it unambiguously more right than industry & science since the 19thC - I couldn't think of any. That means government funding has stored up a mountain of bullshit wrong ideas they are still pushing.

Jerry's comment was
It is possible to create technology on demand -- see Strategy of Technology by Possony and Pournelle -- but it has to be done right and the Iron Law will defeat most attempts. Alas.

NSF* was once the best use of tax dollars we had, but I suspect it no longer is. The Iron Law always wins.

*NSF - National Science Foundation, which in turn promoted the various X-Projects - ok make that 1 example since the 19thC

The book Strategy of Technology is available online from him here. It is set to the theme of defeating the USSR in the cold war, with which I am in little sympathy since I think the USSR's aims were always heavily defencive as they correctly feared that the best they could get from trusting to the peaceful & honourable intentions of the west was what Yugoslavia got. However the longer term lesson is not just that technological progress can be stimulated to improve us compared to the USSR but that technological progress can be stimulated to improve us.

I haven't yet read it but am going to. Meanwhile here is a link to Chapter 3 The Nature of Technological Progress I am very glad Jerry has thought this through before me because it means I can safely assume that, however counterproductive other forms of government "support" of technology are, X-Prizes, by not being able to exercise control over anything but what technology is demanded rather than how or by whom, does indeed maximise positive effects & have very minor negative ones.

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