SB=IA as a guide for US investments in science. Annotations.

Last week’s LOTRW post introduced a new “equation[1],” reproduced here:

(SOCIETAL BENEFIT)i = INNOVATION x APPLICATION

A subsequent post will again pick up the thread of the main argument. This post is in the nature of an aside. It attempts (not entirely satisfactorily) to deal with a few pointy-headed loose ends regarding this statement before proceeding further.

For example, in the earlier post the terms of the equation could perhaps have been defined with a bit more care.  Innovation, as used here, refers to new knowledge, or idea, or method, or device[2]. Application refers to the act, or in the case of a society writ large, the many acts of putting that innovation into practice. The equation states that the societal benefit resulting from innovation doesn’t result from breakthrough alone but the application.

The proposition has already generated a bit of feedback – less than I’d like, and also less than appears in the form of comments to the blog; some has been communicated by direct e-mail, and some face-to-face.   Here’s an example. One person asked:

Am I correct that the “innovation” part involves a judgment of the value of the innovation?  That is, a weak innovation, even if applied widely has low benefit, such as the innovation of high-fructose corn syrup in food that reached high levels of application but was probably not a large benefit to society.  That would also imply that spectacularly good innovation, even if they have limited application, would “score” well, like finding a cure for a fatal disease even if it affects only a tiny fraction of the population and would therefore have very limited application.

Absolutely correct. To follow up a bit on this thread, there’s an underlying supposition here that it’s possible to assess an innovation’s “potential” in some sense. One interesting attempt along these lines: in 1970, Alvin Weinberg, then director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, gave several talks and wrote a paper on The Axiology[3] of Science; The American Scientist 58, pp 612-617[4]. Weinberg argued that

  • Pure is better than applied
  • General is better than particular
  • Search is better than codification, and
  • Paradigm breaking is better than spectroscopy.

He argued that these were so deeply ingrained in scientists’ prejudices as hardly imply a theory of value. Of special interest here is Weinberg’s suggestion (reflecting the sense of his time) that applied science was inherently less valuable than pure science, when viewed through the lens as science, rather than societal benefit.

It’s in this respect in particular that John Plodinec’s thoughtful comment seems very helpful. He suggests that in his management of science he tended to place his bets primarily on application. As John has in the past, he’s tended to anticipate where I’m going next. Specifically, I want to argue in favor of investing far more substantially in the “APPLICATION.” More in the next post. In the meantime, hopefully, other reactions, comments, questions will continue to come in.

Please hang in with me here. This is going someplace. I promise. 🙂

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[1] Asking your indulgence… up to this point I’ve been careful to use quotations and explain that this is not a real equation, with carefully defined variables and expressing a rigorous mathematical relationship relating carefully defined variables. It would be convenient to drop the quotes going forward. In the same way it would be helpful to drop the subscript, remembering that the societal benefit referred to is always that contribution to societal benefit resulting from the innovation in question.

[2] Some definitions of “innovation” refer to the introduction of new knowledge, etc. In such a framing both the idea of “something new” and the notion of “application” are incorporated implicitly in the one word “innovation;” the two are deliberately separated here to make it possible to tease out and speak to their separate roles.

[3] “axiology” refers to the theory of value.

[4] Roger Pielke Jr. makes available an on-line encapsulation of Weinberg’s thinking here.

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