Jerome Ravetz comment on public-private-sector collaboration

Jerry Ravetz is an extraordinary scholar whose work and thought defy easy characterization. Fortunately, he’s done the job for us! On his website, he self-identifies as a “philosopher-at-large.” He’s  been a refreshing and insightful presence at the intersection of science, philosophy, history, and policy for decades. If you don’t know Jerry and want to get a feel for him and for his work, click on and read the professional biography on his web site.

A few days ago he commented on a post I’d written in 2010 describing the fumbling but improving efforts of the private- and public sectors to collaborate in the arena of Earth observations, science, and services. Here is what he said, verbatim:

Fascinating! Over here in the UK there is a sharp polarisation. Roughly half the country believes that when the private sector moves into a public-sector operation, they’re only in it for the profit, and they will cherry-pick the profitable business and reduce quality on the rest. The huge and damaging debate over the reform of the National Health Service is an example. Also, it was private-sector ICT firms that produced one disaster after another in large-scale integrated projects. The railways took years to recover from privatisation in the 1990s. Yet you describe an example of real enrichment and collaboration. How did it happen?

It seemed a shame to let either the comment or the subject languish…this issue of collaboration is often mentioned as a distinguishing hallmark of our field. And speaking of shame, the question and the man who raised it make me wish I had some real scholarship to offer. With apologies, I’m going to give a poor substitute…a personal narrative. Perhaps this will motivate other readers to provide some real facts…maybe we can get a little discussion going.

But let me begin with an (unproven) assertion: if seven billion of us are to cope successfully with our threefold challenge of (1) extracting resources from the Earth (food, water, energy, etc.), (2) protecting the environment and ecosystems, and (3) building resilience to natural hazards, we will have to nurture a more-capable, more-nuanced, less-stereotyped social contract between the public- and private sectors. [If interested, you can find several other posts touching on this subject listed here.]

Back to the narrative. The narrative has a clear public-private-sector piece, but we have to postpone that a bit. For today, we’ll begin with the subject of scientific collaboration more generally. Here goes…

When I was in ninth grade my science book on one of the opening pages asserted that “scientists are a community of scholars engaged in a common search for knowledge.”

Please stop for a second to reflect on how naïve and Pollyannaish that statement sounds to 21st-century ears…or even to adult scientists of the year 1957. Nevertheless…back in ninth grade I failed to lift the veil and realize that this just might be a tiny over-simplification.

It also never occurred to me as the son of a mathematician and the nephew of a plasma physicist that I would become anything but a scientist. When I attended Swarthmore, from 1960-1964 (some years after Ravetz was a student there…we referred to the students of his generation and the 1950’s as “a time when giants roamed the Earth”), I saw nothing to dispel this idea of community. Just the opposite. It seemed to me physics at Swarthmore embodied these ideals at their best.

Graduate school was a different story. At the University of Chicago, at the Institute for the Study of Metals, life seemed at the time to fit the Hobbesian description…nasty, brutish, and short. The junior faculty were competing for tenure, sometimes even when conducting joint research. We were enjoined to keep ideas within our small group. I had one faculty member tell me it had taken him eighteen months to grow a metallic crystal to the degree of perfection we needed for our experiments, and he was “damned if I’ll show anybody how I did it until I’ve milked it for all it’s worth.”

Some community.

After a year, I was sufficiently frustrated by this to look for something else. I transferred to the University’s Department of Geophysical Sciences…

…and entered a far more cooperative world. Collaboration was taken for granted. Comity was in the air. There was a divide between faculty and students, but far less of one than in Physics.

Back then and since, I’ve tried to collect and/or formulate explanations for the difference. Here are a few: (1) The geophysical ground was less picked-over; by contrast, with the invention of the transistor, solid-state (condensed-matter today) physics had become a hot topic. And understanding of geophysics was primitive. The results of the International Geophysical Year were only just settling in. Planetary physics was in its infancy. Unsolved problems were everywhere.  (2) In geophysics, oil exploration aside, chances of getting rich were negligible. (3) So were the chances of winning a Nobel Prize. Remember, this was years before Crutzen, Molina, and Rowland would win the 1995 Nobel Chemistry Prize for their explanation of the ozone hole.

The biggest reason most often given, however, is quite different…and over my career I’ve heard it from all sides. It’s the idea that geophysics is inherently cooperative, whereas physics, chemistry, etc., aren’t. It goes like this. Your colleagues don’t share your interest in rotating liquid helium at temperatures near absolute zero? Or the DeHaas-van Alfven effect? Fine. You’ll go it alone. And you can go it alone anywhere. By contrast, suppose you want to study the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone. Or glacial rebound on Baffin Island? You have to go to these places. And do you want to make a several-day weather forecast for Seattle, Washington? What if the Russians don’t want to share information on current weather conditions (temperature, humidity, etc.) over Siberia? [Hark back to the 1950’s and earlier, before weather satellites.] Then you’re outta luck! In the United States, this reality obtained during the Civil War. During the 1850’s Joseph Henry’s Smithsonian put out a daily weather forecast, based on telegraph reports of weather conditions to the south and west of Washington DC. But once hostilities broke out, the Confederacy denied the Union the data, forcing the Smithsonian out of the forecasting business.

So…from the time that meteorology was born, the field has emphasized international sharing of data. The International Meteorological Organization (the antecedent of today’s World Meteorological Organization) dates back to 1873. It was formed for that specific purpose.

With this as the background…in the next post we’ll turn our attention to private-public-sector collaboration in weather and the Earth sciences more specifically.

Appropriately enough, we’ll find that the relationship has sometimes been tempestuous…and the road a little rocky.

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One Response to Jerome Ravetz comment on public-private-sector collaboration

  1. Michael Cunningham says:

    Ravetz instances that “The railways took years to recover from privatisation in the 1990s.” The UK had a single, dense network, with which British rail engineers were highly conversant. If a major problem arose anywhere on the network, they had the capacity to reroute trains etc to accommodate it. This capacity was destroyed by the form (rather than the fact) of privatisation, including the incentive and penalty structures for the various competing train operators. Having in 1979 left the UK for a short time (which has stretched to 32 years), I don’t know the rationale for the particular form of privatisation, but it was deeply flawed. A local example was the privatisation of the electricity industry in South Australia, which should have been driven by long-term growth considerations but was instead designed to maximize short-term government revenue and led to much higher energy prices which hampered growth.

    The outcome of public-private sector co-operation depends very much on the understanding and intentions of government, and also on their capacity in contract-making. The latter is generally inferior to that in the private sector, and the private sector has much simpler goals and objectives in the negotiations. I’m strongly in favour of smaller government and of public-private collaboration as one means of achieving this; but government and bureaucrats must be genuinely driven by the longer-term well-being of their citizens, clearly understanding what they want to achieve and how it can be brought about.

    I think that the UK and Europe generally are over-suspicious of business, of course they are profit-driven, but that drive has been the predominant cause of innovation and increased standards of living, health, education etc. The fact that this field is highly complex and uncertain (like life and climate!) is not a reason not to explore it.

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