Thoughts on Basic Science and Innovation

Recently, science writer and House of Lords member Matt Ridley wrote an essay in The Wall Street Journal about the myth of basic science leading to technological development. Many people have criticized it, and it even seems like Ridely has walked back some claims. One engaging take can be found here, which includes a great quote that I think helps summarize a lot of the reaction:

I think one reason I had trouble initially parsing this article was that it’s about two things at once. Beyond the topic of technology driving itself, though, Ridley has some controversial things to say about the sources of funding for technological progress, much of it quoted from Terence Kealy, whose book The Economic Laws of Scientific Research has come up here before

But also, it seems like Ridley has a weird conception of the two major examples he cites as overturning the “myth”: steam engines and the structure of the DNA. The issue with steam engines is that we mainly associate them with James Watt, who you memorialize everytime you fret about how many watts all your devices are consuming. Steam engines actually preceded Watt, but the reason we associate them with him is because he greatly improved their efficiency due to his understanding of latent heat, the energy that goes into changing something from one phase into another. (We sort of discussed this before. The graph below helps summarize.) Watt understood latent heat because his colleague and friend Joseph Black, a chemist at the University of Glasgow, discovered it.

A graph with X-axis labelled

The latent heat is the heat that is added to go between phases. In this figure, it is represented by the horizontal line between ice and heating of water and the other horizontal line between heating of water and heating of water vapor.

I don’t know whether or not X-ray crystallography was ever used for industrial purposes in the textiles industry, but it has pretty consistently been used in academia since the basic principles were discovered a century ago. The 1915 Nobel prize in physics was literally about the development of X-ray crystallograpy theory. A crystal structure of a biological molecule was determined by X-ray studies at least in 1923, if not earlier. The idea that DNA crystallography only took off as a popular technique because of spillover from industry is incredibly inaccurate.

Ridley also seems to have a basic assumption: that government has crowded out the private sector as a source of basic research over the past century. It sounds reasonable, and it seems testable as a hypothesis. As a percentage of GDP (which seems like a semi-reasonable metric for concerns about crowding out), federal spending on research and development has generally been on the decline since the 70s, and is now about a 1/3 less than it’s relatively stable levels that decade. If private R&D had been crowded out, a competitor dropping by that much seems like a decent place for some resurgence, especially since the one of the most cited examples of private research, Bell Labs, was still going strong all this time. But instead, Bell cut most of its basic research programs just a few years ago.

Fedederal research spending as a percentage of GDP from the 1976 to 2016 fiscal years. The total shows a slight decrease from 1976 to 1992, a large drop in the 90s, a recovery in 2004, and a drop since 2010.

Federal spending on R&D as a percentage of GDP over time

To be fair, more private philanthropists now seem to be funding academic research. The key word, though, is philanthropist, not commercial, which Ridley refers to a lot throughout the essay. Also, a significant amount of this new private funding is for prizes, but you can only get a prize after you have done work.

There is one major thing to take from Ridley’s essay, though I also think most scientists would admit it too. It’s somewhat ridiculous to try to lay out a clear path from a new fundamental result to a practical application, and if you hear a researcher claim to have one, keep your BS filter high. As The New Yorker has discussed, even results that seems obviously practical have a hard time clearing feasibility hurdles. (Also, maybe it’s just a result of small reference pools, but it seems like a lot of researchers I read are also concerned that research now seems to require some clear “mother of technology” justification.)  Similarly, practical developments may not always be obvious. Neil deGrasse Tyson once pointed out that if you spoke to a physicist in the late 1800s about the best way to quickly heat something, they would probably not describe something resembling a microwave.

Common timeframe estimates of when research should result in a commercially available product, followed by translations suggesting how unrealistic this is. The fourth quarter of next year The project will be canceled in six months. Five years I've solved the interesting research problems. The rest is just business, which is easy, right? Ten years We haven't finished inventing it yet, but when we do, it'll be awesome. 25+ years It has not been conclusively proven impossible. We're not really looking at market applications right now. I like being the only one with a hovercar.

Edit to add: Also, I almost immediately regret using innovation in the title because I barely address it in the post, and there’s probably a great discussion to have about that word choice by Ridley. Apple, almost famously, funds virtually no basic research internally or externally, which I often grumble about. However, I would not hesitate to call Apple an “innovative” company. There are a lot of design choices that can improve products that can be pretty divorced from the physical breakthroughs that made them unique. (Though it is worth pointing out human factors and ergonomics are very active fields of study in our modern, device-filled lives.)


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