Discovery is not a synonym for innovation

My last post discussed Lehrer’s column on the increased difficulty of making scientific discoveries. Lehrer should have stuck with that topic alone instead of pivotting off Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation to ponder the relationship between scientific discoveries and standard of living:

I think it’s also worth contemplating the disturbing possibility that our cresting living standards might ultimately be rooted in the difficulty of making new scientific discoveries.  After all, at a certain point the pursuit of reality is subject to diminishing returns – our asteroids will get so small that we’ll stop searching for them.

For someone who often paints wonderfully nuanced pictures of science, I’m a bit confused to see Lehrer write this. Living standards never have been and never will be “rooted” in new science. If they are rooted in anything, it is productivity increases related to innovation. The rule of law, tax structure, monetary policies, and capital investment all play a pretty big role here.

In fact, only since WWII has science been more than a minor player. Industrial revolution technologies were not strongly linked to the scientific revolution that preceded it, and may have depended more on a robust patent system than heroic scientists. Even if we grant that science has recently become critical, it may be more so in America than elsewhere. The Japanese economic miracle occurred despite a paltry level of science funding, and was spurred by careful industrial planning. Germany seems  to have escaped the worst of the Great Recession despite spending relatively little on R&D. And while our standard of living may be “cresting”, the developing world is, well, developing quite well. So again, there is no straightforward link between science, innovation, and living standards.

The U.S. may indeed have a problem with economic stagnation, and it’s important to understand what exactly is going on. But casually assigning too much credit or blame to discovery is, for lack of a better term, pretty unscientific and doesn’t help.

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