Tuesday, 17 June 2014
In the coalition we have a very clear understanding of the best way to achieve economic progress—that is, that the free market is the best driver of progress, provided that that market has integrity. Planned economies have clearly failed, and history is replete with the ashes of their attempts. This is despite the fact that a planned economy at first glance may seem attractive in terms of trying to maximise use of resources, minimise duplication and so on. The reality is that despite the duplication, dead ends and all of the other problems associated with the free market, in the medium to long term it is significantly more successful than planned economies. Indeed, I remember it being said in the 1970s that it would be better to live in a free market economy during a recession than in communist Russia during a boom.
Given this very clear understanding that the marketplace and contestability are the best ways to ensure economic success, why are we moving in the opposite direction with scientific research? We are attempting to direct scientific effort to maximum effect with research priority areas and increased funding to medical research while cutting other areas of research. Do we really believe that because someone becomes a scientist they are suddenly not human and that normal human behaviour stops once someone becomes a scientist? The fact is, the scientific research environment is a market—a marketplace of ideas. As such, this marketplace would operate better unfettered by government direction of where scientific effort should be applied because governments 'know better'. I fail to understand why we in the coalition do not know better than to assume that government is best placed to direct research. Take advances that we have seen in the past. In fact, take scientific advances that now generate about a third of the globe's economy, that being solid-state electronics.
Imagine a world where, at the turn of the 20th century, the world's governments, particularly Germany, the UK and the US, decreed that they saw the electronics industry as the coming thing and made research in electronics the research priority area, flooded it with money and removed significant amounts of funding from other research areas. What would have happened? You would have had rent-seeking behaviour, as many scientists moved from areas that interested them, where they thought there was significant benefit in terms of knowledge, to seek grants associated with advancing electronics.
Imagine that Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Dirac, Pauli and others, instead of doing work on quantum physics—after all, what applications are there and what economic benefit is there in such an esoteric field?—did work on electronics. We would probably have incredibly good and efficient valves, probably very small as well. For those who do not know, valves were replaced by new-fangled transistors. But, without that research in what would have appeared to have been an area completely unrelated to electronics—quantum physics—there would have been no breakthrough in the understanding of atomic structure that led to solid state electronics; hence computers and all the other electronic devices we take for granted today as a result of microchips would not have eventuated. This suboptimal result from directing research in an area where we know of the massive benefit!
We have been hearing much in discussion about cures for cancer and dementia. This directed research has been tried before. The US introduced the National Cancer Act in 1971, which began the 'war on cancer'. It was hoped that a cure would appear within 10 years. Forty years later, there has been incremental improvement, but nothing approaching a cure.
Just as we would have constrained advances 100 years ago by specifying as a priority the very area that led to massive advances in electronic technology, so we may be constraining the very research activity that may lead to a cure for cancer or dementia by narrowly defining the research priority area to be funded. Just as we recognise the free market is best for economic advancement, so we should allow the magic of markets to work in the area of scientific research, to the benefit of all.