Physics and Society Oct '97 - Reviews

Volume 26, Number 4 October 1997


The Economic Laws of Scientific Research by Terence Kealey

St. Martin's Press, New York, 1996, ISBN 0-312-17306-7, $19.95 pb, 382 pages


Economic growth depends on technological innovation, which depends in turn on scientific research. Because there is insufficient incentive for private firms and individuals to support science, laissez faire would produce too little of it, with the result that economic growth would be stunted. Thus, government must take responsibility for funding science.

So goes an argument that has been made by scientists and science advocates since Francis Bacon. But is it valid? After all, wealthy industrialized countries (Western Europe, English-speaking former British colonies, Japan) became wealthy before their governments spent much on science, while poor countries (most notably the USSR) that lavished funding on science did not thereby get rich. One is entitled, therefore, to at least some doubt regarding the economic case for government funding. Terence Kealey, a biochemist at Cambridge University, seeks to discredit that case entirely in The Economic Laws of Scientific Research.

According to Kealey, technological innovation can stimulate economic growth, but the essential ingredient in that process is capitalism, not government. Furthermore, basic research stimulates only a small proportion of technological innovation; the vast preponderance stems from pre-existing technology. (Indeed, the arrow most often points the other way: technological innovation underlies advances in science.) In particular, the Industrial Revolution did not, contrary to popular myth, stem from application of scientific discoveries. The salient technological innovations were made by people who either had little education or, at any rate, were unaware of the relevant science.

Is the relative economic advance or decline of nations linked to government support for research? Was, for example, Britain's decline relative to Germany in the decades around 1900 a result of the British government's weaker support for research and higher education, as some claim? On Kealey's reading of economic history, the answer is no. Among capitalist countries a fairly tight relationship has been observed between wealth and rate of growth (per capita), in which the poorer countries grow faster. (The way this happens is clear: Poor countries catch up by copying the techniques of the wealthy, and in an environment of free trade they can undersell competitors, attract investment, and rapidly build up their capital stock.) In the latter 1800s, Germany was much poorer than Britain, and its faster economic growth was basically what one would expect from the empirical correlation. Conversely, Britain in the 1960s was spending a far higher percentage of its economic output on research than countries that were passing it economically.

Would science and civil R&D be underfunded in the absence of government subsidy? With regard to civil R&D, the answer is unequivocally no. Kealey cites a statistical relationship between national wealth and total spending (government plus private) on civil R&D. Wealthier countries spend a proportionally greater percentage of their economic output on civil R&D. When allowance is made for this relationship, total civil R&D funding is positively correlated with the ratio of private to government funding. The implication is that government funding crowds out private R&D spending, and it does so on a more than one-to-one basis.

As with civil R&D, wealthier countries also spend a larger fraction of their economic output on academic research than do poorer countries, but academic research funding has been effectively nationalized almost everywhere, so that it is not possible to use comparative statistics to demonstrate the same crowding-out effect as for civil R&D. Nevertheless, Kealey shows that considerable funding was available for science from a variety of private sources before government got deeply involved, and he challenges the conventional wisdom that private firms have insufficient incentive to do basic research. The usual argument is that there is a free rider problem: Scientific results become widely known, so why should any firm do research if it can just copy the research of others? Kealey counters this argument by pointing out that a firm can possess the competence needed to benefit from others' front-line research only by employing its own cadre of front-line research scientists, and it can attract such scientists only by giving them freedom to carry out their own research.

In tracing the evolution of science policy in Britain and the US, Kealey stresses the significance of war as a driver of government funding and control. Needless to say, he has no praise for those prominent individuals who successfully lobbied for an expanded government role. Summarizing developments in the US, he puts the matter this way:


[A]t any one time there is at least one powerful person, waiting in the wings, just itching to impose a centrally planned, federally funded science policy on the people of America....The Civil War enabled [Alexander] Bache to create the National Academy of Sciences, the Great War enabled [George Ellery] Hale to create the National Research Council, and the Second World War provided Vannevar Bush with his opportunity.


Kealey notes that Bache, Hale, and Bush were each successful not only in securing greater government involvement in science, but also in advancing their own personal careers thereby.

Kealey regards academic science, as it is carried out these days, as "Malthusian." Thomas Malthus's concern over the tendency of population growth to outstrip available resources is nowhere better illustrated than in the universities, where a single researcher with a grant and several graduate students can produce a new Ph.D. every year. A scientific resource famine is inevitable, because the self-restraint necessary for healthy growth is absent from government-funded academic research. Eventually, science runs up against the limits of taxpayer generosity, and even if funding keeps growing, but at a slower rate, there is much pain and frustration as anticipated career paths do not materialize. Kealey contends that not only would the free market have provided amply for basic research, it would have treated scientists themselves fairer, and on average better.

Kealey's work in many ways complements that of Joseph P. Martino, whose Science Funding: Politics and Porkbarrel reached similar conclusions several years earlier. Martino focuses on the American 20th century experience, while Kealey adds a British perspective and takes a broader historical approach. Absent any convincing refutation of these works, it is hard to see why policy makers should take seriously warnings by the APS and other scientist organizations, regarding dire consequences of a reduction in federal research outlays.


Allan Walstad

Associate Professor of Physics

University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

Johnstown, PA 15904


The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler,

Simon & Schuster, New York, 1993.


Like Mary Shelly's Doctor Frankenstein, we are partly defined and controlled by our technologies, created by the very technologies that we create. This is especially true when the technology is omnipresent and thus, in a sense, unnoticed and unconsidered. The automobile is such a technology. Although considered by most Americans to be as natural, healthy and necessary as the air we breathe, a few authors, environmentalists, city planners, and social philosophers have begun to critically consider whether we have been doing the right thing all these decades as we allowed automobiles to shape our countryside, our cities, our homes, our economy, our leisure, our work, our social interactions, and ultimately our image of ourselves. For many in our fast-paced consuming society, it is a radical notion to even suggest that we should reflect on the role of the automobile, and on whether there are better ways.

Several good recent books have taken up all or part of this theme: Reclaiming our Cities and Towns by David Engwicht (New Society Publisher, Philadelphia, 1993), Driving Passion by Peter Marsch and Peter Collett (Faber and Faber, Boston, 1986), Steering a New Course by Deborah Gordon (Island Press and the Union of Concerned Scientists, Washington, DC, 1991), End of the Road by Wolfgang Zuckermann (The Lutterworth Press, Cambridge, England, 1991), Supertrains by Joseph Vranich (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991). But James Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere is the best. Kunstler reviews the history and landscape of highway strips, parking lots, bedroom communities, shopping malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside, a concrete landscape where everyplace is "nowhere" because it is like everyplace else. And he proposes sensible remedies through a return to human-centered planning.

Kunstler, a rare bird who combines thoughtful analysis with graceful and witty prose, is a novelist, former reporter and editor for Rolling Stone, frequent contributor to The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and a serious student of American history and community development. His book takes a sophisticated look at the crisis of our communities and of the American Dream, and it is a good read as well.

The early chapters are steeped in historical perspective. "American Space" discusses early land law and "the identification of an extremely individualistic form of property ownership with all that is sacred in American life." Tocqueville, that astute early observer of our culture, is quoted: "Individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in selfishness."

"Life on the Gridiron" argues that our boringly square city and township grids dictated a way of thinking about communities in which private property (the space between the grid lines) was everything and the public realm (the streets that connected the private properties) counted for nothing.

"Eden Updated" chronicles the nineteenth-century rise of the suburbs, and its roots in the industrial revolution. The suburbs were created so that those who made their livelihood from the industries that destroyed the central cities could escape those cities without moving to the country. Kunstler argues that suburbanites get the worst of the city and the country while destroying both in the bargain. The suburbs "dispensed with all the traditional connections and continuities of community life, and replaced them with little more than cars and television."

"Joyride" follows the rise of the automobile and its accomplice, the traffic engineer, and the resulting "transformation of American space in a new and horrible way, for which no one was prepared." The chapter documents General Motors' systematic campaign to put America's streetcars out of business. Interesting points include the "principle of traffic generation," according to which any highway built to alleviate congestion on an earlier existing road only succeeds in generating more aggregate traffic for all roads.

These chapters end with a depressing (for what else could it be?) look at today's geography: "the road that is now like television, violent and tawdry, the landscape littered with cartoon buildings and commercial messages; we whiz by them...and forget them; they do not celebrate anything beyond their mechanistic ability to sell merchandise; we don't want to remember them; there is little sense of having arrived anywhere, because everyplace looks like noplace in particular."

The next chapters look at some bad and good examples. "How to Mess Up a Town" is about Kunstler's home town, Saratoga Springs, New York. "The Loss of Community" chronicles the demise of American small towns, with populations of a few thousand.

"Three Cities" is a high-point. The cities are Detroit, "the worst case of an old industrial metropolis gone to hell," Portland which "embodies the most hopeful and progressive trends in American city life," and Los Angeles, "the quintessential city of the twentieth century, wholeheartedly dedicated to cars." Traffic planners, if they have ever dreamed of more concrete as a kind of brute-force laxative to relieve congestion, need to read this.

Finally comes a long hopeful chapter on "Better Places," offering the wisdom of Kunstler and other planners. To me, the most exciting is Christopher Alexander, who views all the "objects" in the city-scape as connecting relationships rather than as mere objects in space. For instance, a window is not merely a hole in the wall, but a relationship between the outside and the inside, between darkness and light, between warmth and cold. A window is not a thing--it is a connection. Similarly streets, parks, towns and so forth are defined by the connections that they make. [Is it too far-fetched for this physicist to see a similarity between this concept and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, according to which atoms and other particles are not things but are, instead, relationships between the observations of macroscopic detection devices?]

Andres Duany has built new towns with no parking lots, with apartments above shops, alleyways, footpaths, grouped housing, mixed uses, streets that make cars slow down and that are "detailed for human delight rather than ease of motoring." These places are popular, because "the world is ready for a change; --this human ecology movement must really be the agenda for the years ahead." Peter Calthorpe aims to retool America's suburbs along lines similar to the sensible developments I witnessed a decade ago surrounding Stockholm, Sweden: Planned walking villages containing local services, with each village center located at a mass-transit stop.

We needed this book 50 years ago, before America had strangled itself on automobiles, before the centers of most American cities had descended into their present Dark Age. Today this book and others like it, along with the many town meetings being held across the country to reconsider such fundamental questions as the role of the automobile, plus the brute fact that the care and feeding of all these cars is becoming prohibitively expensive, might be harbingers of a return to people-centered communities. Maybe it is still not too late to save something of the glory of our cities, something of the "civitas" from which the word "city" is derived, not too late for a return to the civilized virtues that should characterize human beings living together.


Art Hobson

reprinted by permission from The Teacher's Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education.