April 4, 2012

Innovation in America: Debate between Kakaes and Sarewitz


As I mentioned earlier this week, Slate is hosting a conversation between Konstantin Kakaes and Dan Sarewitz on science and innovation. While I should be doing about 10 other things for school right now, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to commentate.

Kakaes, who is a journalist and a fellow at the New America Foundation, begins by questioning the pace of current innovation; claims that innovation is happening faster than ever and that the need for innovation is greater than ever. Second, he deconstructs the idea of measuring innovation, through patents and publications, as both of these metrics can't actually tell us the usefulness of their affiliated innovations. Finally, he ties this into an argument that because we can't measure innovation, we can't guide scientists to work towards positive societal outcomes. Kakaes refers to some of Sarewitz's previous popular publications, calling him out on perceived inconsistencies on his call for innovation for social goods.

Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University and co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes [full disclosure: he is also on my PhD committee], responds to Kakaes by summarizing his argument and pointing out that Kakaes is following the "serendipitous discovery" rhetoric. A closer examination of the history of technology shows that this narrative only plays well in political advocacy, as the strength of industry innovation during the 19th and 20th centuries show. Sarewitz argues that while allowing scientists a space for intellectual curiosity is important, the institutional structure of innovation can help shape the outcomes. Just giving money to brilliant scientists isn't enough. His favorite comparison is the Department of Defense, which invests in high-risk high-payout projects but also procures from multiple contractors and is ultimately the end-user of the technologies, and the NIH (or Department of Energy), which  invests in incremental basic research in biomedicine and has largely disappointed the advocates of diseases such as cancer.

Kakaes next responds stating that, "Talking about the 'pace of technological change' is only the tip of the spear of MBA-speak that is stabbing the academy." He argues that the attempt to quantify technological outcomes buries deeper truths about their social context. He argues that the constant need to justify science to politicians actually causes the rat-race of incremental advances. Kakaes dwells on the gap between scientific research and social prescriptions for this research, from biomedicine to cigarettes to climate change, citing that Francis Collins' "Translational Medicine" concept for the NIH also falls short of reconciling this gap. He ultimately argues that politics, rather than science is the "limiting factor" in delivering public goods.

Sarewitz carefully takes down every point Kakaes brought up, both turning the examples of the DoD, earthquake research, the NIH, and mouse models against each other. He again argues that the institutional context of research matters; that scientists aren't pursuing mouse models because of political pressure, but because that is the way field of biomedicine has institutionalized.

I'm looking forward to subsequent posts, and it's difficult for me to take an unbiased view on this, but I mostly agree with Sarewitz. Kakaes is championing a "Republic of Science" vision of unfettered scientific research; i.e. the golden age of physics. In response, Sarewitz writes, "the lessons of real-world, everyday science are quite clear: scientific creativity and real-world problem-solving are both at their best when they can feed off of each other." This is a statement I thoroughly support.

1 comment:

  1. Great summary of a fascinating series. Slash, parry, riposte!

    Kakaes and Sarewitz are mostly arguing past each other, and sadly, they've dropped the interesting questions they started with. Are we living in a period of exponentially accelerating technological change? (I'd argue that we aren't). Can public support of science accelerate technology? (Yes, but we don't know how). Should we accelerate technological change if we can? (Open question). But I'm just this guy, you know, and I want to see S&K go at it!

    Instead they've gotten drawn into this 'institutional context' quagmire. Yes, of course institutional contexts matter, but they're always different, and we can always find an example to support what we're trying to say.

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