How can Vince Cable predict what is useful science?


2:40 pm - September 10th 2010

by Chris Dillow    


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One of the more unpleasant aspects of the New Labour government was its anti-Hayekian pretence that central government could acquire knowledge which, in fact, is unobtainable. The coalition has inherited this boneheaded idea.

Take Vince Cable’s recent speech:

There is no justification for taxpayers money being used to support research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding.

The problem here is that it is impossible to predict what research will be commercially useful.

History is full of examples of businessmen and scientists – let alone politicians – utterly failing to anticipate commercial uses, for example:

“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable”
"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value.”
"Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax."
"While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility."
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
“This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."

The notion that government can cut only “useless” science funding is an egregious pretence to know things that cannot be known. Instead, such cuts operate much as financial constraints for business operate: they diminish the ecology upon which natural selection operates.

The only reason I hesitate to call Cable a witless imbecile is that I doubt that he actually believes what he says.

Speaking of witless imbeciles brings me seamlessly to Gideon Osborne. He says:

People who are disabled, people who are vulnerable, people who need protection will get our protection, and more.

"But people who think it's a lifestyle choice to just sit on out-of-work benefits – that lifestyle choice is going to come to an end.

Now, leave aside the hypocrisy of the heir to a multi-million fortune whining about folk getting something for nothing.

Leave aside the fact that there’s little point encouraging people to find work if there’s none to be had. And leave aside the fact that the unemployed are, on average, significantly unhappier than those in work.

Even if we ignore all this, there’s still a problem here. It is, practically speaking, almost impossible for the state to distinguish between the “vulnerable” and the “workshy”. A more intrusive benefits system will bear heavily upon those with poor mental health, low IQ and poor social skills, whilst “scroungers” will continue to game the system. 

The distinction between deserving and undeserving poor might seem clear to bar-room bigots. But it is almost impossible to apply it to millions of individual people, except by creating a bureaucracy so large as to offset any savings on benefits.

Osborne is doing just what Cable and New Labour did. He’s assuming the state can know things which in fact it cannot.

Good Hayekians should be sceptical of what Osborne and Cable are claiming. Sadly, though, I suspect that  the majority of people who claim to admire Hayek are wedded more to class war than to Hayek’s actual ideas.

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Reader comments


Speaking of witless imbeciles brings me seamlessly to Gideon Osborne.

Oh boy…

Now, leave aside the hypocrisy of the heir to a multi-million fortune whining about folk getting something for nothing.

Yeah, because the thing about George Osborne is that he’s used his good fortune to allow him to sit on his arse and not do anything useful with his life, just waiting for his windfall. I mean, just think what he might have achieved?

The inclination of observers on all sides of the political spectrum to conclude that all their opponents are, at best, ‘witless imbeciles’ and at worst actively evil is one of the most depressing aspects of British politics.

By performing a ritual sacrifice (possibly Jonathan Djanogly), then consulting the entrails..?

Tim J, according to his entry in Debrett’s:

Career: “head of political section Cons Research Dept 1994-95, special advsr MAFF 1995-97, sec to the shadow cabinet and political sec to the Ldr of the Oppn 1997-2001, MP (Cons) Tatton 2001-; oppn whip 2003, oppn Treasy spokesman 2003-04, shadow chief sec of the Treasy 2004-05, shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer 2005-10, Chllr of the Exchequer 2010-; memb Public Accounts Ctee House of Commons 2001-03; vice-pres E Cheshire Hospice, hon pres Br Youth Cncl, tstee Arts & Business”

Useful?

Highly questionable.

[http://www.debretts.com/people/biographies/browse/o/21514/George%20Gideon%20Oliver+OSBORNE.aspx]

Useful?

Highly questionable

Yeah, Chancellor of the Exchequer is such a non-job. I don’t know why he bothers to get up in the morning.

Hm, kinda wish more of this article was about Cable & science policy: governments of both colour are bloody rubbish as that usually and this is no different.

*bloody rubbish at that

A more intrusive benefits system will bear heavily upon those with poor mental health, low IQ and poor social skills, whilst “scroungers” will continue to game the system.

…and ‘a more intrusive benefits system’ is exactly what the Tories/New Labour/Coalition have been pursuing for over 30 years: everything from ‘actively seeking work’ to lie detectors.

8. Chaise Guevara

@ Tim

“Yeah, Chancellor of the Exchequer is such a non-job. I don’t know why he bothers to get up in the morning.”

Come on Tim, you know all publically funded jobs are non-jobs if 1) their purpose isn’t immediately apparent to the slowest of observers or 2) I happen not to like the person filling the role.

Come on Tim, you know all publically funded jobs are non-jobs if 1) their purpose isn’t immediately apparent to the slowest of observers or 2) I happen not to like the person filling the role.

Sorry – we’re all finding the transition from Govt to Opposition and vice versa conceptually difficult!

This inheritance dig at Osborne is pathetic, really.

The point is that, even if he were doing nothing, it wouldn’t be on the back of any of my (or your) money.

I cant remember the exact details but im sure when an american mayor used a telephone for the first time he was so impressed he declared

“I can see a time when every major city in the world will have a telephone”

This is a perfect example of how a perfectly good article can have any positive effect totally nullified by taking cheap pot-shots.

We could have had a debate about the actual issues, but because the poster couldn’t resist the urge to snark we are instead stuck with people arguing about that instead.

I was happily agreeing with the thrust of the article until we went into childish name-calling and social discrimination territory with the pointless attacks on George (please note chosen name, and refer to the previous thread for reasons why this might be advisable and polite to use) Osborne. So I will stick to discussing the rational and well-argued bit (actually, as a writing tip, don’t try and lump one issue in with another – it makes for confused and easily attacked posts).

I think there may be a case for cutting science funding in a recession (because any benefits will not be short-term anyway, so it is hardly adding to the problem unduly). But I am not sure it is government’s role to try and identify useful science in any case – I am all for funding the quest for knowledge for knowledge’s sake as a public good, but trying to identify what is useful when most of those making the decision are less than qualified is hardly sensible at the best of times.

14. Chaise Guevara

@13

Your fears may be groundless, at least as far as Vince is concerned. I haven’t got time to go through the whole speech now, but here’s a broader context for his quote in the OP:

“I support, of course, top class “blue skies” research, but there is no justification for taxpayers money being used to support research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding.

As I said earlier, it would be wrong to measure this in monetary terms alone. There are wider questions, regarding the UK’s openness as a society and its attractiveness as a destination for the brightest scientists, researchers and engineers from all over the world.”

In other words, that’s pretty much what you said. There’s no suggestion that scientific policy will be formed without reference to expert opinion, and he’s gone out of his way to say that financial return is not the only criteria that should be used to justify investment.

15. Chaise Guevara

“The problem here is that it is impossible to predict what research will be commercially useful.”

Yes, but what’s the solution? Unless you’re proposing we create an unlimited fund for R&D, which I doubt, then someone somewhere has to say “We’re funding this, not that”. And as the government hold the purse-strings, it’s going to be them.

We could have had a debate about the actual issues, but because the poster couldn’t resist the urge to snark we are instead stuck with people arguing about that instead.

I’m sure you could ignore the snark if you really wanted to.

That Tories will come on here and get all agitated about some snarky comments about their policitians, despite doing it for years themselves, is entirely unsurprising.

Doesn’t mean Gideon Osborne doesn’t deserve it though.

Sunny – the point is to cultivate a high signal-to-noise ratio. If people start trouble in the comments, then they should be discouraged from doing so. It’s very hard to do that when the original poster is doing that in the first place.

As it is I find the comments section of LC incredibly depressing at times – not as bad as, say, The Guardian, but tending in that direction. If you deliberately incite it, as you just did, then you’re making the site worse, not better.

And _nobody_ deserves personal attacks. Attack ideas, not people.

‘Speaking of witless imbeciles brings me seamlessly to Gideon Osborne.’

I was prepared to give Paul Sagar the benefit of the doubt but this is moronic.

19. Grimsby Fiendish

iPods. Radio. Aircraft. Television. Home computers. Telephones.

Chris Dillow has marshaled an impressive list of devices that some short-sighted commentators dismissed at the time as having no commercial potential.

Unfortunately for his point, it’s also a list of devices that were invented and commercialized without any government funding.

On the topic, of course I agree with the limits of govt. knowledge.

Now I hope we can be spared any further posts telling us how the govt. must encourage “green” jobs / discourage financial services, etc. etc.

How can Vince Cable predict what is useful science?

I don’t know. How can the EPSRC and the other government agencies that allocate research money make that prediction?

If they cannot, they might as well be scrapped.

Sunny,

Doesn’t mean Gideon Osborne doesn’t deserve it though

Mr Osborne was clearly unhappy for some reason with his name, and selected another one (although retaining the original, presumably so as not to upset his parents or some such minor consideration).

To then pick on a name he was given at birth and clearly does not identify with, and use it as a sign of his poshness (i.e. that he happens to be born into a rich family) is frankly discrimination. It ignores the fact this is not his identity, and tries to use his birth to discredit him rather than his actions.

How would you feel if he was originally called Kwazme and was black, but chose to change his name, and commentators still called him Kwazme? I only ask because I fail to see the difference in discrimination against someone because of their social status and because of their perceived ethnicity (well actually I do – it is called Stalin and Hitler, if you can see a difference there).

No-one deserves being insulted in a way which seeks to draw attention to an accident of birth. Although clearly you have a perfect right to call whoever you want an imbecile – that part was just bad writing.

For six years I was a researcher working on a particular interesting semiconductor device. It was interesting but no immediate use. Trying to explain to people why the government was wasting their money paying my rather pathetically small salary was somewhat difficult. Then ten years later I bought a mini-disc recorder and (the nerd I am) I checked the technical specifications of the machine and found that the device I spent so long working on was used for the laser in the machine.

My point is that you cannot determine the commercial benefit of any research before you do it, and you probably cannot determine the commercial benefit of any research even once it is completed.

It is not just witless to cut scientific research, it is cretinous.

@15

Yes, but what’s the solution? Unless you’re proposing we create an unlimited fund for R&D, which I doubt, then someone somewhere has to say “We’re funding this, not that”. And as the government hold the purse-strings, it’s going to be them.

I take it from this statement that you have never been involved in a grant application for research funding? The government rely on the research councils to allocate the funds. There are committee meetings and peer reviewing process who examine the proposals based on the reputation of the applicants and the proposed work. If the applicant has a citation index as long as their arm, triple digit number of published papers and speak regularly at international conferences, then they have a better chance of getting the funding than someone who has none of these. It will never be the case of unlimited funds.

But one thing is very important, if idiots like Lansley can make arbitrary declarations like “we will cut the cost of management in the NHS by 45%” with no evidence whatsoever that this is desirable, or even possible, then we should all agree that the very worst people to decide how research funds are allocated are dimwitted politicians.

iPods. Only useful now that Home Computers and the Internet are common, see below.

Radio. Huge Government subsidies for military applications.

Aircraft. Huge Government subsidies for military applications.

Television. The BBC installed the broadcasting towers and infrastructure the system still works on, the BBC was nationalised well before TV came out. Satelite TV comes directly from investment by Governments in the Space Race of the 60s.

Home computers. Huge Government subsidies for computers for military applications.

Telephones. The Government run GPO installed all the telephone lines we’re still using today, only privatised in the 80s as BT.

The Internet. Completely publically funded for Military purposes, later escaped into the wild and was popularised by the invention of the WWW, which was developed by a scientist working at CERN, which is directly funded by European Governments.

In fact, most major technological breakthroughs and subsequent development are funded by the taxpayer through direct Government spending or Government subsidy, and only later become monetised when they are sold off (usually at a price less then the cost of research) to private companies.

It is difficult to predict what research will have commercial applications. The principle people who might have an idea include scientists themselves. Which is why research funding is mostly allocated according to peer-assessment by panels of experts in the field. The question here isn’t whether you can predict what research will have commercial applications, however. It is “why are cuts in research funding considered good economic practice at all?”

For example, this study calculated that “a £1.00 investment in public/charitable [cardiovascular disease] research produced a stream of benefits thereafter that is equivalent in value to earning £0.39 per year in perpetuity.” The same study gave a return of £0.37 for mental health research. These are a limited example and the conclusions are hedged in terms of considerable uncertainty due to the complex nature of the accounting required, but the conclusion is a familiar one to anyone interested in the subject. The vile nature of bean counteres is to ignore anything which is not easily quantifiable. This absurd approach to policy would have denied us several world-changing discoveries if it had been applied across the last century. Harry Kroto has written an appropriately excoriating open letter on the subject. Unfortunately UK politics is rarely an evidence-based exercise, as is clear to anyone following the current Slashathon. Appeals to rational consideration of the economic merits of a policy have so far failed to protect funding for the safety camera network, the Sustainable Development Commission and a host of other eminently self-financing programs which offend the ConDem ideology. This is clearly not a battle that can be won by reasoned argument. A popular revolt is the only thing that will save us now.

Lots more links on The Danger of Assessing Research by Economic Impact here (credit to Leslie Ann Goldberg).

From Harry Kroto:

“However my experience is that one can point out the above obvious issues until one is blue-in-the-face, and no one with any influence on science funding ever takes the blind bit of notice!”

28. Grimsby Fiendish

In fact, most major technological breakthroughs and subsequent development are funded by the taxpayer through direct Government spending or Government subsidy,

None of the inventions I listed were developed through government funding, and in the USA as well as other countries, none of them were commercialized or popularized through government funding. I grant you that in the sclerotic British economy some government funding was later involved, but what can you expect in a country where the government feels it has to provide guidelines on everything from changing nappies to climbing step-ladders? Just because the British can’t take a piss without having their cock held by a bureaucrat doesn’t mean other countries require that level of nannying to do anything useful.

It is regrettable that the OP, Chris Dillow, is so selective when quoting Vince Cable. If you read the full speech by Cable, it is clear that whilst he does not wish to “pick winners”, prioritisation of spending requires him to do so. Prioritisation is presented as a better option than salami slicing all research budgets.

@19. Grimsby Fiendish: For the first 11 years of their existence, heavier than air flying machines were a novelty. It took a world war and government money to turn them into something useful. (In four years of war, aircraft manufacturers used government money to achieve progress equivalent to 50 previous years of automobile development.)

Television and telephones were commercialised by governments who licensed operators. Governments used similar methodologies and standards to those adopted for telegraphy. All three are examples of explicit government desire to select viable operators.

The home computer and pocket calculator were spin offs from semiconductor research funded by US military at companies like Fairchild, Intel and Texas Instruments.

Government spending on military research in the 20th century means that it is difficult to conduct what-if debates about the successes. And there are the less successful inventions such as the ekranoplan and hovercraft.

Grimsby Fiendish, you are either insane or stupid. Charlieman has already put you right but I should add that even to this day the US military-industrial complex, which perfected the science of aeronautical engineering, is sustained almost solely by government contracts and subsidies.

@Charlieman, Cable’s conclusion that we should cut the 46% of research in the country that isn’t “world class” is neatly rebutted in this CiF article. Suffice to say all but 2% of that 46% is classified by the Research Assessment Exercise as ‘internationally or nationally recognised for its “originality, significance, and rigour”‘. If we are to delete all but the highest standard of research it effectively impossible to train any scientists to advance to those high standards in one step without instituting some sort of Cold War scientific gulag. The intermediate steps- and even the lower ones- often work in symphony with the higher ones!

I presume that punkscience intended to link to this CiF piece:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/10/irrational-to-ration-science-funding

Richard Horton presents a good case but his stats are dodgy. To suggest that government cuts will cause a 40%/28% in heart disease/cancer research budgets is misleading given how well endowed they are from charities.

Naturally I share punkscience’s concern about resources for PhDs, post docs and post post docs. Vince Cable does need to present a better argument about how young scientists can prosper within universities.

Sorry, forgot to put the html in. Thanks Charlieman.

@Charlieman: No matter how well endowed those causes are from charities you can’t simply magically replace millions o f pounds of government funding. Also, those are just two tiny fields in the massive span of scientific research in this country. The ConDem scum are talking about cutting anything without obvious commercial application. Well, that includes my entire field of ecotoxicology and pretty much all other environmental research as well as all blue-sky physics and chemistry research as well as an array of soft-science fields such as behavious, psychology and sociology. And, of course, economics. Which is ironic seeing as eco-economics offers the most rigorous criticisms of the sociopathic policies this government is intent on imposing on the country. Surely, with the LibDems haemorhhaging support, there is surely an argument to be made that this government no longer operates under even the most flimsy of pseudo-democratic mandates?

Firstly, Vince’s dig at that which is not theoritically outstanding sounds to me that he’s just having a dig at the old polys…. in a nutshell. The Russell Group et al will be fine.

Secondly, I’m stunned that a lot of Tories come on here only to complain that we’re having a dig at their favourite politicians, what do they expect?

George Osborne is a nasty malign little toad who will never have to worry about getting a debilitating illness because he’s rich, yes, stinking rich!

If he falls ill, seriously ill, he can just go and see any specialist he likes and he won’t have to worry about signing on – likewise for his family. He’ll be comfortable, attended to and will have a good likelihood of recovering (possibly).

How must it feel at the moment to have symptomatic multiple sclerosis, cancer or some other devastating condition at the moment knowing that you’re thought of as a ‘lifestyle choice’ by the government and the little money you receive from the state is under threat because the Tories have taken over and the loath the needy? Hmmmmm I would guess much worse than it was 6 months ago.

For Tories to come on and show faux incredulity about someone being rude about one of their particularly malign politicians or using their former name just shows what a completely sociopathic little planet you all come from.

Oh, sorry I haven’t made-up any figures to back-up my claims or done a Google search to find some spurious ‘wiki’ source to quote.

So in industrial policy the coalition says you can’t pick winners, but that’s exactly what they are advocating for the allocation of research funding grants, hmmmm poor Vince

Tim, lad

Easily impressed as you seem to be,The job of Chancellor is not what it was. Perhaps maybe in comparison to what you do. What do you do? Government is only, after all, the Public Sector par excellance.

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Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    How can Vince Cable predict what is useful science? http://bit.ly/drr79w

  2. Angela Pateman

    RT @libcon: How can Vince Cable predict what is useful science? http://bit.ly/drr79w Gd comment: 'by ritual sacrifice & examining entrails'

  3. Think

    “@libcon: How can Vince Cable predict what is useful science? http://bit.ly/drr79w” he's "all seeing" didn't you know?!

  4. Justin Nelson

    How can Vince Cable predict what is useful science? | Liberal Conspiracy http://ht.ly/2CkxQ

  5. Hamish Allan

    RT @libcon: How can Vince Cable predict what is useful science? http://bit.ly/drr79w

  6. UNISON East Midlands

    How can Vince Cable predict what is useful science? http://is.gd/f4GLk

  7. Nicholas Stewart

    How can Vince Cable predict what is useful science? http://j.mp/bqrgms

  8. NWL Unison

    RT @UNISONEastMids: How can Vince Cable predict what is useful science? http://is.gd/f4GLk





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