John Irons's Blog


Economic News, Data and Analysis

Diversity Should Power Science

Read Scott Page. Buy his book. So say we all…

Diversity Should Power Science

This faith in government funding of basic research rests (first of all) on the proven shortcomings of profit-driven science. The demands of the marketplace obviously create incentives to explore many scientific pursuits, most often practical problems such as how to build faster computer chips, safer allergy medications, and more fuel-efficient cars.
One fact should be obvious, businesses won’t set out to make the world a better place unless they can make money at it.
That leaves many fundamental questions related to the causes of disease, the forces that create an affluent society, and the maintenance of the earth’s ecosystems in need of funding from governments. Finding solutions to existing problems is reason enough to support science research, yet government investment in basic science also encourages unguided exploration, which can result in solutions in search of problems, such as the laser. As odd as this sounds, science often finds answers to problems we didn’t even know we had.
So why would I argue that the current science funding model is clearly inadequate to the needs of scientific inquiry? Why is this model antiquated? Because the sources and causes of innovation remain mysterious (and will always be so), which in turn requires new thinking about how best to finance innovation.
Innovation, in economic terms, resides inside the heads of people. People possess different ways of seeing problems and solutions–oftentimes different perspectives depending on the kinds of people viewing particular problems and solutions. People’s perspectives are accompanied by ways of searching for solutions to problems, something scientists call heuristics. When confronted with a problem, people encode their (often quite different) perspectives and then apply their particular heuristics to locate new, possibly better, solutions.
Individuals who perform best obviously possess good perspectives and heuristics (think Thomas Edison and his multiplicity of inventions), yet 30 copies of Edison working as a team may be no better than one. In contrast, a diverse team of individual innovators may on average know fewer heuristics each but collectively know more. When a diverse team applies those diverse heuristics, the effects can be superadditive. Watson plus Crick were far more impressive than either working alone.

Yet another blog I will have to read… scienceProgress

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