[ExI] Sex, Science & Profits

Tom Nowell nebathenemi at yahoo.co.uk
Sun Dec 19 13:09:12 UTC 2010

Doesn't the subject line sound like a science publisher's dream? And indeed this is the title of a book by Terence Kealey, subtitled "How people evolved to make money". You can imagine my excitement on seeing this in my local library, and eagerly taking it home so I can start an argument with Keith Henson about evolutionary psychology and economics.

Like all the best advertising, the title, cover and blurb on the back are utterly false. Instead, this is a book on the history of science viewed through the lens of free-market economics. It touches on EP, and the section on the stone age and early civilisations covers some of the points the "what counts as paleo" arguments on here have.

The main thrust of the book is how Bacon's view of science as a public good are incorrect, and how government funding gets in the way. He does make many good points - for all that people assume pure science research leads to commercial spin-offs, there is the counter-argument that steam engines built by scientifically uneducated artisans led to industrial uses, and that these steam engines inspired Carnot's work on thermodynamics. In fact, if you'd tried to follow one of the leading scientific theories of the time, that heat was a substance, you wouldn't have been able to build a steam engine.

He also points to research that shows government-funded R&D "crowds out" commercial R&D, and that increased funding for scientific research has no positive correlation with economic growth. In the 19th century, French scientists complained that every fine development they had was commercialised in England, just as in the 20th American and British scientists complained about the Japanese.

One set of examples is striking - the first jet airliner (Comet), first commercial supercomputer (manufactured by Ferranti), commercial nuclear power station, and only supersonic airliner (Concorde, a french/british government initiative) were all great technological advances, and all commercial disasters funded at the British taxpayer's expense.

Kealey is generally anti-patent, and he tries to show that sharing information can be more profitable than patenting and trade secrets. He acknowledges that the regulatory costs of pharmaceuticals may make that one area that patents are necessary, and cites a paper by P Grootendorst and L Di Matteo "The Effect of Pharmaceutical Patent Term Length on Research and Development and Drug Expenditures in Canada", Healthcare Policy 2007, 2:63-84.

Kealey also makes the case that science is unlike most goods described by economists - it's not purely a public good, nor a private good, and doesn't fit the normal criteria for  "hybrid goods" used by economists. He calls science a "collegiate good" -  one which can only be directly used by the scientifically educated, but produces benefits both public and private.

Another point covered is that publishing academic papers is essentially a status activity, and as such the economics of it can be likened to vanity publishing - this is one reason why some journals have decided to charge subscribers to the journal less and instead charge people submitting papers as a way of sharing the costs.

There are many amusing incidents and asides in the book that show a different picture of historical events. My favourite is the part on Charles Babbage. While Babbage is lauded as a computational visionary, Kealey looks at his work from the side of the government - Babbage applied for funding, burnt through the lot without producing a working Difference Engine, and then applied for more money saying he had a new idea - the Analytial Engine. When the government rejected him, bearing in mind the results of his last project, he turned round and wrote a book "The Decline of British Science" in which he complained that Britain was going downhill as no-one would fund science. Of course, the nineteenth century saw many British discoveries and science doing well without government funding.

I'll stop there as I think I've covered enough ground already, and I've probably exceeded the attention span of half the list.



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