Arnold Kling  

What is Revolutionary Science?

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Bruce Charlton and Peter Andras write,


a research foundation working in a specific scientific field might at present spend 100 million dollars per year – and might spread this money among ten 10 million dollar program grants. In all likelihood, this money will at present be spent on normal science, and will produce modest incremental progress.

We are suggesting that such a research foundation might instead spend 100 million dollars in a single prize, awarded to a relatively young scientist or a few scientists in recognition of a significant success in revolutionary science.


Their thesis is that the existing system in science over-rewards low-risk, low-reward science and under-rewards attempts at revolutionary science.

As they point out, this raises the issue of how to measure revolutionary science. In economics, there is the famous case of Coase walking into a Chicago seminar with 20 participants convinced he is wrong and walking out with most convinced that he was correct.

I think that many of the Clark Medal winners would count as having done revolutionary science. Krugman, surely. Acemoglu, surely. Perhaps Summers could be accused of only doing a lot of good "normal science."

Which leads me to ask, what would a big award for revolutionary science have done in economics? I think that what many economists value most is peer recognition. It seems to me that in the United States, revolutionary economists get some important high-end peer recognition--the Clark Medal. So it could be that a big cash award might actually be overdoing it in terms of the incentives to take high risks in economics research.

What we need are incentives for greater diversity in the new-hire gene pool.


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COMMENTS (3 to date)
jsalvati writes:

Is the Structure of Scientific Revolutions' thesis testable? has it been tested? My impression is that it has not been tested, (and I can't think of a way in which you could test it). If his thesis has not been tested, then the prospects for comming up with a way to measure Revolutionaryness in order to administer this prize seem pretty bad. Without a way to measure revolutionaryness, Charlton and Andras are basically just suggesting that we increase the size of current awards. Which is not to say it's a bad idea.

The Sheep Nazi writes:

Well, first: is economics science? (I do not believe that it is, but am willing to be persuaded.) Second, it seems clear that there are revolutionary economists, and that their non-monetary reward -- the chance of triggering a wholesale redirection in public policy -- is one that no monetary reward can compete with. If you are John Maynard Keynes, or Milton Friedman, and the whole developed world follows your lead with respect to how it arranges its economic affairs, then that's a payoff that swamps any amount of prize money. Lastly, that opportunity only comes probably twice a century anyway. I guess I'm not seeing how this would produce an increase in the amount of paradigm-changing research that gets done.

The Sheep Nazi writes:

Sorry! Your last para more-or-less says what I said. Read the whole post...

[Edited for inappropriate language--Econlib Ed.]

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