The Moon and the Ghetto
by Jack Stilgoe, The Guardian Newspaper (UK), 12/19/14.
In 1977, economist Richard Nelson posed a question that remains central to science and innovation policy: how is a rich country like America able to put a man on the moon, but is unable to solve the problems of its own ghettos? In September of this year, after the excitement that came with the launch of India’s latest space adventure had subsided, even those unfamiliar with Nelson’s work asked similar questions. The Economist wondered ‘how a country that cannot feed all of its people can find the money for a Mars mission’.
The first answer to Nelson’s question is that science and innovation are tied to social choices. There are good reasons why the Indian government should choose to invest in ambitious hi-tech programmes while also working towards public health just as there there are good reasons to challenge their balance of priorities. The discussion is a legitimately democratic one.
The second answer to Nelson’s question is that the problems of space and the problems of poverty are qualitatively different, demanding very different approaches. Space missions are about technological problems with technological solutions. It is normally clear whether or not they have succeeded. There is far more disagreement about causes and cures for ‘wicked’ problems of poverty or climate change. Science alone cannot give us the answer.
Earlier this year Bill Gates offered a prediction:
By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world. Almost all countries will be what we now call lower-middle income or richer. Countries will learn from their most productive neighbors and benefit from innovations like new vaccines, better seeds, and the digital revolution.
From the litany of bad predictions made by technological optimists, Gates would have done well to recall that in 1959 CP Snow had made a similar one, albeit with a longer deadline:
This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed… Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t.
These statements suggest great faith in the power of science to cure social ills. Needless to say, the gap between rich and poor has grown since Snow’s day. Poor people have got better-off thanks in part to the benefits of science and innovation, but the rich have benefited more, and the problems of poverty persist. Tackling grand challenges means going beyond what Evgeny Morozov calls ‘solutionism’, in which problems are redefined by technologists to suit the tools they have available.
One need only look at neglected diseases to realise the disparity between scientific research and human needs. Early policy reports identified a 10/90 gap – only 10% of the world’s health research funding goes to 90% of the world’s disease burden. Thomson Reuters found that the disparity is even more stark when we consider published research. The number of papers on elephantiasis and intestinal worms, which together affect more than a billion people, is less than a tenth of the figure for diabetes and HIV/AIDS.
With a rising tide of public science spending, it is easy to overlook social choices about how money should be spent. But even as spending on university science grew in Europe and the US through the 90s and 2000s, budgets in strategic areas like agriculture, defence and energy were allowed to ebb away. As Nanoscientist Richard Jones argued in a recent lecture and in a policy report last year, the effects of this shift for innovation in energy have been disastrous. Just as our awareness of climate change was demonstrating the need for new sources of green energy, the UK and others were cutting off major sources of innovation and expertise. We are spending next to nothing on energy research because nobody is taking responsibility for it. As science budgets across the world flatline or decrease, hard choices about priorities can no longer be avoided.
Wishful thinking and scientific excellence will not counter neglect. We need, first, to acknowledge that there are problems with systems of funding, reward and recognition in science and, second, to encourage new models of inter-disciplinarity, so that different perspectives can negotiate problems and innovate with various responses.