Science and Employment: You Must Remember This, The Fundamental Things Apply As Time Goes By

Here are some pointed questions about science, innovation, and technological progress:

First: What can be done, consistent with military security, and with the prior approval of the military authorities, to make known to the world as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war effort to scientific knowledge?

The diffusion of such knowledge should help us stimulate new enterprises, provide jobs for our returning servicemen and other workers, and make possible great strides for the improvement of the national well-being.

Second: With particular reference to the war of science against disease, what can be done now to organize a program for continuing in the future the work which has been done in medicine and related sciences?

The fact that the annual deaths in this country from one or two diseases alone are far in excess of the total number of lives lost by us in battle during this war should make us conscious of the duty we owe future generations.

Third: What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?

The proper roles of public and of private research, and their interrelation, should be carefully considered.

Fourth: Can an effective program be proposed for discovering and developing scientific talent in American youth so that the continuing future of scientific research in this country may be assured on a level comparable to what has been done during the war?

New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life.

War should be understood as the military actions in Asia and the war on terror.

By now you all may have wondered, “What the heck is Deven doing talking about war (good God, y’all, what is it good for)?” Or something like that. And some of you may have figured out that all of the above except “War should be understood as the military actions in Asia and the war on terror”, which I threw in to try and seem like the ideas are from today, is from President Roosevelt’s letter to Vannevar Bush.

Funny how little changes overtime. Jobs, medical progress, public/private collaboration, the future of science education are all on our minds today. They have been a core issue since at least 1944. The full history of Science the Endless Frontier is hosted by the NSF. It is a fun read. Well, if you are absurdly nerdy, it is a fun read.

There are many things to enjoy in the report. One part that jumped out at me is his idea about employment and science. I may write more as I digest the report in general. For now take a read:

Scientific Progress is Essential … For the Public Welfare: (closest link to the passage)

One of our hopes is that after the war there will be full employment. To reach that goal the full creative and productive energies of the American people must be released. To create more jobs we must make new and better and cheaper products. We want plenty of new, vigorous enterprises. But new products and processes are not born full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions which in turn result from basic scientific research. Basic scientific research is scientific capital. Moreover, we cannot any longer depend upon Europe as a major source of this scientific capital. Clearly, more and better scientific research is one essential to the achievement of our goal of full employment.

How do we increase this scientific capital? First, we must have plenty of men and women trained in science, for upon them depends both the creation of new knowledge and its application to practical purposes. Second, we must strengthen the centers of basic research which are principally the colleges, universities, and research institutes. These institutions provide the environment which is most conducive to the creation of new scientific knowledge and least under pressure for immediate, tangible results. With some notable exceptions, most research in industry and Government involves application of existing scientific knowledge to practical problems. It is only the colleges, universities, and a few research institutes that devote most of their research efforts to expanding the frontiers of knowledge.

Today we may swap the rest of the world for Europe, but otherwise I think the point holds up rather well.

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3 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Actually, there’s a huge difference between 1945 and now: at the time of the report, full employment, not economic growth, was the objective of economic policy.

    Such ideas as “structural unemployment” and an obsession with productivity improvements in order to stimulate growth were still invisible over the horizon. Today we focus on increasing GDP by any means, because we believe it will increase jobs, stimulate innovation, make everyone rich, fund Social Security, etc. Back then the point of policy was to employ people — and increasing output was one means to do so.

    Today we hypocritically reward, with bumps in share price, “productivity improvements” achieved by massive layoffs, while also spouting that GDP growth is necessary to create jobs. Back in the 1940s, though, the point was to increase production, not productivity, because increased production would employ more people. Vestiges of this idea persisted even into the 1960s, when Arthur Okun would try to answer the question, ” ‘How much output can the economy produce under conditions of full employment?’ … It is a question of policy significance because the pursuit of full employment (or ‘maximum employment’ in the words of the Employment Act) is a goal of policy.” And some macroeconomists even today believe that either the causation is ambiguous (e.g.,here), or else runs in the opposite sense, i.e., that unemployment depresses output (see, e.g. here).

    It’s thanks to the military (and Uncle Joe) that today we in the US put the cart before the horse. In post-war Europe, labor was scarce, and unemployment wasn’t an issue — rebuilding bombed-out production was the key. Re-interpreting for its own political ends an inapposite, Depression-era growth model focused on full employment (the Harrod-Domar model), in 1949 the UK government became the first to make economic growth an official policy goal. 1949 was also the year when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. At the time, there was a struggle going on in Truman White House between economic advisers and the military. The military wanted to increase defense spending, while the economists worried about huge budget deficits. The new British growth policy allowed the US military to argue that defense spending wasn’t just necessary for security, it would be good for the economy too, by stimulating growth. As Domar himself explained in 1951, there was a double reason for prioritizing growth: first, “full employment without growth is impossible,” and second, “the present international conflict” made growth “a condition of [America’s] survival.” Thereafter, the GNP growth contest served as a proxy for a shooting war between US and Them, enabling GNP growth to become an end in itself. At the same time, the list of things growth was supposedly good for grew like the spiel of a patent medicine huckster warming to his topic. See H. Walter Arndt’s The Rise and Fall of Economic Growth (Longman 1978; UChicago 1984), an excellent, if prematurely-titled, history written during the height of the Cold War. Despite the end of the Cold War, its mythologies and justifications of growth, bolstered by Promethean mythologies of innovation (visible in the Bush report to Roosevelt, but at least as old as Descartes), persist to this day.

    The connection of scientific research to full employment is no longer true. In 2010, it took 62,000 employees to create $1 billion of profit at Toyota, and 33,900 at GM; whereas it took only 3,692 employees to create that much at Microsoft, only 2,535 at Google and only 2,330 at Apple (FY2011). Google doesn’t even have 33,900 employees worldwide, much less 62,000. And forget about coming close to Toyota’s 317,700 employees in its consolidated subs; the 69,000 employees of its non-consolidated subs alone are more than double Google’s global workforce.

    Bottom line: a lot more changes over time than one might think. Context is all.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    BTW, scientific research doesn’t necessarily boost GDP, either. See my discussion of the Paul Romer growth model here, and the 1995 papers of Romer’s Stanford colleague Charles Johnson cited therein (showing, inter alia, no increase in total factor productivity proportional to increase in number of researchers in US, France, Germany, Japan).

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    [An attempt was made to post the following comment before the 2011/11/05 12:01 (whence the “either” in that comment), but was “awaiting moderation” for several days without action being taken. This is a re-try, minus hyperlinks. Apologies if this is duplicative:]

    Actually, there’s a huge difference between 1945 and now: at the time of the report, full employment, not economic growth, was the objective of economic policy.

    Such ideas as “structural unemployment” and an obsession with productivity improvements in order to stimulate growth were still invisible over the horizon. Today we focus on increasing GDP by any means, because we believe it will increase jobs, stimulate innovation, make everyone rich, fund Social Security, etc. Back then the point of policy was to employ people — and increasing output was one means to do so.

    Today we hypocritically reward, with bumps in share price, “productivity improvements” achieved by massive layoffs, while also spouting that GDP growth is necessary to create jobs. Back in the 1940s, though, the point was to increase production, not productivity, because increased production would employ more people. Vestiges of this idea persisted even into the 1960s, when Arthur Okun would try to answer the question, ” ‘How much output can the economy produce under conditions of full employment?’ … It is a question of policy significance because the pursuit of full employment (or ‘maximum employment’ in the words of the Employment Act) is a goal of policy.” And some macroeconomists even today believe that either the causation is ambiguous (e.g.,here), or else runs in the opposite sense, i.e., that unemployment depresses output (see, e.g. here).

    It’s thanks to the military (and Uncle Joe) that today we in the US put the cart before the horse. In post-war Europe, labor was scarce, and unemployment wasn’t an issue — rebuilding bombed-out production was the key. Re-interpreting for its own political ends an inapposite, Depression-era growth model focused on full employment (the Harrod-Domar model), in 1949 the UK government became the first to make economic growth an official policy goal. 1949 was also the year when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. At the time, there was a struggle going on in Truman White House between economic advisers and the military. The military wanted to increase defense spending, while the economists worried about huge budget deficits. The new British growth policy allowed the US military to argue that defense spending wasn’t just necessary for security, it would be good for the economy too, by stimulating growth. As Domar himself explained in 1951, there was a double reason for prioritizing growth: first, “full employment without growth is impossible,” and second, “the present international conflict” made growth “a condition of [America’s] survival.” Thereafter, the GNP growth contest served as a proxy for a shooting war between US and Them, enabling GNP growth to become an end in itself. At the same time, the list of things growth was supposedly good for grew like the spiel of a patent medicine huckster warming to his topic. See H. Walter Arndt’s The Rise and Fall of Economic Growth (Longman 1978; UChicago 1984), an excellent, if prematurely-titled, history written during the height of the Cold War. Despite the end of the Cold War, its mythologies and justifications of growth, bolstered by Promethean mythologies of innovation (visible in the Bush report to Roosevelt, but at least as old as Descartes), persist to this day.

    The connection of scientific research to full employment is no longer true. In 2010, it took 62,000 employees to create $1 billion of profit at Toyota, and 33,900 at GM; whereas it took only 3,692 employees to create that much at Microsoft, only 2,535 at Google and only 2,330 at Apple (FY2011). Google doesn’t even have 33,900 employees worldwide, much less 62,000. And forget about coming close to Toyota’s 317,700 employees in its consolidated subs; the 69,000 employees of its non-consolidated subs alone are more than double Google’s global workforce.

    Bottom line: a lot more changes over time than one might think. Context is all.