David R. Henderson  

Basic Research Does Not Equal Technology

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One of the best articles by the late William A. Niskanen, which I used to great effect in my recent "Energy Economics" course, is his take-apart of "Bacon's Chain." The article is titled "R&D and Economic Growth: Some Cautionary Tales," and appears in his book, Reflections of a Political Economist [pdf]. Here's how Niskanen states Bacon's Chain, named after the famous philosopher and scientist, Francis Bacon:

Government financing is necessary to provide the adequate level of basic research, which is necessary to provide the scientific foundation for advanced technology, which accounts for a large part of economic growth.

Niskanen shows how weak each link is. He gives some startling evidence that basic research is NOT necessary for advanced technology. I won't repeat his evidence here. I will say that he gives copious evidence from a number of studies.

I thought of Niskanen's work while reading David P. Billington, The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering, Princeton University Press, 1983. Billington fills a hole in Niskanen's argument by explaining why basic research is not necessary for technology:

There is a fundamental difference between science and technology. Engineering or technology is the making of things that did not previously exist, whereas science is the discovering of things that have long existed. Technological results are forms that exist only because people want to make them, whereas scientific results are formulations of what exists independently of human intentions. Technology deals with the artificial, science with the natural.

He later quotes a British scholar, Michael Mulkay, who writes:
[S]cience seems to accumulate mainly on the basis of past science, and technology primarily on the basis of past technology.

HT to Harry Watson



COMMENTS (8 to date)
Trespassers W writes:

On this topic, I recommend Terence Kealey's The Economic Laws of Scientific Research.

Brandon Berg writes:

I can see this being true for a lot of fields. For example, it may be safe to say that we have all the physics research for which we'll be able to find practical applications for the next generation or so.

I find this somewhat less plausible for biology, and particularly medicine. There's a lot of stuff going on in the human body that we don't fully understand, and that we need to understand in order to solve some pretty important medical problems. For example, we still don't really understand what's going on with Alzheimer's. And until we do, we're pretty much just poking around in the dark looking for a cure.

drobviousso writes:

Basic scientific research is necessarily, but not sufficient, for technological advancement. Sometimes, that association is distant. We're still figuring out how to do cool things with Newton's laws. Sometimes, it is much, much closer. You don't get crypto software without new crypto research, and the move from research to product is sometimes instant.

This might be an example of a free-rider problem. Most of the benefits of basic research go to people who did not pay for it, i.e., people in other countries or other centuries.

What that means, of course, is that the worst argument in favor of subsidizing research is "all the cool nations are doing this." If nobody is doing X, it might make sense to try doing X just to see if it can be done (Example: the Manhattan project). If just one nation is doing X, it might make sense to follow them to prevent a monopoly. (Example: the space race). If everybody is doing X, then we can buy X (if it really is worthwhile) from a variety of sources. What's more, we'll be competing with lots of subsidized industries, which is a good way to lose money. (Example: solar panels.)

MingoV writes:

drobviousso is not correct. Basic science is not necessary for many types of technological advancement.

Example 1: The improvements from iron to steel to high carbon steel and then to specialty steels did not require any basic science research. Metallurgists made such improvements before physicists understood atoms and before physical chemists understood the properties of metal alloys. Basic science research improved our knowledge of metals and alloys and shortened the development time of modern specialty steels, but the basic science research was not required.

Example 2: Computer technology advancements over the last 25 years did not rely on basic science research. Basic science helped in the development of semiconductors decades ago, and research on semiconductor properties has helped manufacturers produce smaller chips, but even without the research, similar improvements would have resulted from trial-and-error efforts of chip manufacturers.

drobviousso writes:

1) You got me. My statement is only true in post-Enlightenment culture.

2) This is just wrong. The transistor is the fundamental building block of the logic circuit, and it was invented by a physicist doing what is believed to be purely theoretical work (that is, no prototype is known to have been created). Suggesting that the computer - especially semiconductor design - was or could have been the product of science free trial and error is just astonishingly wrong. Every improvement in hard disk design, RAM formatting, and cable design is grounded in basic science as applied to engineering design. To say nothing of the software that runs on the computer.

Joe Cushing writes:

I don't know a lot about this topic. I always thought basic research was important. There are always stories how technology comes after science, so you believe it. Yet, if a reputable person tells me there is a ton of evidence that says this notion is wrong, I'm inclined to believe it rather than argue about it. At least go look at the evidence before questioning it.

Tom McKendree writes:

I always thought the best illustration here is that the Steam Engine was not invented because Professors at Cambridge and Oxford had previously developed thermodynamics.

I also agree with Trespassers W that Kealey's book is interesting.

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