Having himself been
asked to leave this institution a few years earlier because of a
shortage of laboratory space and having later been able to observe
abundant resources wherever he took his research, Kealey set out to
document how British science was actually thriving under Conservative
policy due to increased private funding. What perhaps began as a
somewhat modest project eventually turned into an ambitious survey of
historical and contemporary economic, science and technology
controversies. The biochemist’s main conclusion was that public funding
always and everywhere crowds out far more important and effective
private support of science.
Despite his comment in the preface of The Economic Laws that he “hope[d] never to write another book,” Kealey found the time and energy to expand significantly on his first foray into science and technology policy. The result is Sex, Science & Profits (henceforth, SSP), a courageous and witty book that not only restates in a more accessible style the main arguments of his earlier work, but also contains a more ambitious discussion of the intellectual and sociological nature of the scientific enterprise which is rooted in evolutionary psychology thinking.
As in his previous book, Kealey first introduces Sir Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) ‘linear’ model of technological advance and economic growth, which he summarizes as follows:
Despite the longstanding academic and political support behind Bacon’s notion of science as a public good which can only thrive through government support, Kealey argues that it is not supported by the available evidence . His main objectives in SSP, however, are more ambitious than simply documenting this fact, for he not only contends that science is not and cannot be a Baconian public good, but also presents readers with an alternative model of science, technology and economic growth interactions.
As in The Economic Laws, the author first supports his argument through a broad and lengthy (almost 260 pages) revisionist historical survey stretching from the Stone Age to recent British government science policy. Kealey’s interpretation of the available evidence is rooted in the framework put forward more than two centuries ago by the economist Adam Smith, which he sums up as follows:
In short, Smith not only believed that most industrial advances emerge from the creative thinking of people directly involved in production activities rather than from academics ensconced in university laboratories, but also that academic science more often than not feeds off new problems or discoveries made in the technological realm.
Unlike many other broad surveys on the topic written by respected academics,(2) Kealey pulls no punches for characters he dislikes and often reminds his readers of his good fortune in having been born an Englishman. The result is, to my knowledge, one of the most entertaining serious discussions ever written on the subject. Indeed, I have already recommended it as beach reading to some (obviously academic) acquaintances of mine…
Kealey provides wide ranging evidence in support of the hypothesis that the scientific method is intuitive, citing among others the work of psychologist Jean Piaget, archaeologist Steven Mithen and various dolphin and chimpanzee specialists. He also adds a personal anecdote, observing that upon arriving in his lab, his own PhD students—educated in the British school and University system and lacking in-depth knowledge of any topic other than football—already understood the scientific method.
His observations concerning the inherently competitive nature of science are equally wide ranging. Describing a scientific quarrel between the Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Hippasus in which the former had the latter drowned, he observes that if the story is based on the hearsay of later Greek writers, “the fact of the story, and its credibility to those of us who know scientists (one of my research supervisors hated all his competitors and would have murdered them all), speaks of the perennial nature of the scientific personality” (p. 83). Despite their historically limited contribution in terms of plant domestication, European farmers “did develop poppies and oats. As Dr Johnson noted, the Scots eat oats” (p. 36). [Of course, while Dr. Johnson's dictionary is said to have defined oats as “food for men in Scotland, horses in England,” Kealey is perhaps unaware of the traditional Scottish rejoinder that, as a result, “England is noted for the excellence of her horses, Scotland for the excellence of her men.” (Smith, 1919, p. 75)]
Readers are also reminded in a discussion of the Second Anglo-American War of 1812 that “the Americans, allied to the tyrannical Napoleon, attacked Britain, the world’s sole defender of freedom. But in 1814 the Americans, from their Blackened House in Washington, D.C., were forced to sue for peace” (p. 347).(3) The German-born rocket scientist Wernher von Braun was an “ex-Nazi whose own moral fibre would not withstand much examination” (p. 248). David Lloyd George was “a politician who treated the organs of the state (and the women contained within) as his chattels” (p. 275). The University of Sussex’s prestigious Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) is a “leading UK lobbyist for government money” (p. 298). The eugenics movement “was born of snobbery” (p. 264) and a desire “to sterilize… unwanted domestic detritus” (p. 268) and long-term “progress” in marijuana’s cannabinoid content demonstrates that agricultural improvements will occur in the absence of government support (p. 160).
"Smith not only believed that most industrial advances emerge from the creative thinking of people directly involved in production activities rather than from academics ensconced in university laboratories, but also that academic science more often than not feeds off new problems or discoveries made in the technological realm."
While Kealey’s historical survey summarizes and expands on themes
often already discussed in The Economic Laws, the real value
added of SSP can be found in the book’s final major section,
“What is Science?”
The remainder of the section is best described as an abattoir for
the sacred cows of mainstream economics (Stanford University’s Paul
Romer, Kealey’s main bête noire, chief among them) and policy
science research in which he takes no prisoners and shows no mercy,
while skewering along the way the need for a patent system (with the
exception of the pharmaceutical industries) and the division between
pure and applied science which he ultimately traces back to snobbery
whereas, in fact, each type of science chisels away “at different faces
of the same mountain of ignorance” (p. 397).
* Article first published in the
Summer 2009 issue of the
of Sustainable Development.