The Economic Laws of Scientific Research by Terence Kealey: A Short(ish) Review (Part 1)

Now, during the week I toil on the engineering plantation so when I’m released from bondage every Friday the last thing I want to do is think (or read) about scientific research or the economic laws that govern it.  I want to read about galactic overlords or underlords or possibly space princesses in space bikinis.  When I’m feeling particularly engaged with reality I like to read about the local Galactic Overlord Trump skewering interplanetary morons from the failed newspaper The New York Times.  But someone I’ve known forever and who is extremely smart sent me this book and told me to read it.

Well, with all the good grace of a man walking to the gallows I acquiesced and read the damn thing.  So, I am shocked that I not only read this book but that I’m glad I did.

I do not recommend reading this book unless you’re interested in the financing of research and development.  Instead, let me tell you what this book says and why it’s interesting and important.  Then if it seems like something you want to delve into, have at it.

This first post will deal with the preliminaries.  The first substantial chapter is called Francis Bacon and Adam Smith.  Basically, he states that there is a dichotomy of opinion in the scientific world about how knowledge, technological innovation and economic growth are related.

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) who was revered by the intelligentsia of his and following generations proposed the following model:

Government Funded Academic Research → Pure Science → Applied Science (or Technology) → Economic Growth

Adam Smith (1723 – 1790) who wrote “The Wealth of Nations” is still revered today for his views on capitalism.  He disagreed with Bacon’s model (based on the evidence of innovation in his own time) and his model can be outlined as:

 

That Adam Smith is right and Francis Bacon is wrong is the premise of this book.  Kealey also gives some details about Bacon’s life that pretty conclusively prove that Bacon was the biggest tool of the Elizabethan era.  As Attorney General under Elizabeth I he apparently personally supervised the torture of defendants to elicit confessions.  He also back-stabbed his own patron Robert Earl of Essex when it was convenient.  Now your knowledge of classic Hollywood films of the thirties will remind you that Bette Davis and Errol Flynn were the eponymous stars of “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.”  Donald Crisp played Francis Bacon in this epic and history has obviously pronounced its verdict against Bacon with this casting.  So, I will say no more.

The last topic for this first post is the Chapter entitled, “Research and Development in Antiquity.”  I am sort of an antiquities fan.  All things roman and greek are of interest to me.  So I was surprised to find that this chapter opened my eyes to a way of looking at the difference between ancient and modern life.  I had often wondered that such intelligent and inquisitive peoples as the Greeks and Romans never moved past primitive muscle powered methods of life into something more dynamic like steam power.  After all, Alexandrian science of Ptolemaic Egypt had used steam power to propel toys for the king’s court.  Why had they never made the leap to using it to power more useful engines for industry or commerce?  I found the answer here.  They didn’t apply it because nobody wanted the application.  The Macedonian kings of Egypt and the Roman emperors after them employed these geniuses like Archimedes to build toys (or at best design war engines).  These royal patrons assembled the brightest minds of the age and lavishly funded their researches into everything from pure mathematical study to astronomy, physics and medicine.  They sponsored this research out of love of knowledge and vanity to out-compete their rival kingdoms.  But practical commercial applications were not desired.  Designing manufacturing improvements would merely displace slaves who tilled the fields and rowed the galleys and dug in the mines.  The king and emperor had more than enough slaves to make him as rich as anyone (even a god/emperor) could want to be.

This chapter demonstrated that technological innovation only occurred away from empires.  So, the earlier small city states of Phoenicia and old Greece were a hot bed of innovation.  Here were found merchant cities that traded with all the corners of the Mediterranean and invented the convenient alphabet rather than the sacred hieroglyphics and coined gold and silver as a way of spurring trade.  Ship building and navigation were important technologies and other innovations were learned from all corners of the sea.  The use of iron, improvements in the plow were learned during their trading activities.  And they were capitalistic states.  They were in the poorest of farming lands and they survived (and greatly prospered) by trade.  But as soon as Greece discovered its strength and consolidated into larger states and expanded into the larger world, slave labor became the answer to all its problems.  And once Alexander conquered the Persian Empire, the template for how an empire would be run was established.  From that point it was basically the same system as all the Fertile Crescent empires that had come before and innovation was a problem not a solution.  Plow your field, give a third to the temple, a third to the King and hope the new barbarians don’t burn the town down when they come through.   The Romans followed the same pattern.  Early independence and innovation (although much less ambitious than the Greeks) followed by imperial control of all facets of life with precious little need for innovation because of the realities of a slave labor economy.

I will quote from the last two paragraphs of the chapter to summarize.

“The empire collapsed not for a lack of Hellenistic science – there was plenty of that – but because it abandoned capitalism.  It was a plunder empire not a market empire.”

“The fall of the Graeco-Roman hegemony teaches that the government funding of academic science will not generate useful technology in the absence of an appropriate capitalist economy.”

This guy Kealey is pretty smart.  He answered something that’s puzzled me for many years.  Why those intelligent folks never invented the steam engine.  It also shows the fallacy of that Star Trek episode “Bread and Circuses.”  The Romans would never have had automobiles.  But they would have had TV eventually.  It would keep the slaves happy.

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