Science Trumped by Growth

August 2016

Donald Trump's Presidential Campaign has caused some scientific hand-wringing.

An editorial by Daniel Sarewitz in the journal Nature points out the obvious fact that not all boats have risen on the back of scientific progress.

Indeed, I briefly tuned into "Cross-Country Checkup" on CBC Radio the other weekend, only to hear a young scientist talking about how he used drugs to push the boundaries of sleep deprivation at critical times in his career. Times when he simply had no time to rest. With far more qualified PhD's than secure jobs, most are winnowed out or struggle from one uncertain, short-term position to another.

It would seem, as Daniel Sarewitz says, "... that scientific progress has not benefited all Americans". Given the experience of graduates today compared to those of previous generations, it would seem that scientific progress hasn't even benefited all of those who would be scientists!

But what's it all about?

An article of faith for public support of science is the notion of Science The Endless Frontier, as written by Vannevar Bush, in 1945. Is there any evidence that science is, as they say, an "endless frontier"?

It seems that scientists are still finding out stuff. Papers are being published in great abundance. The evidence appears to support the notion that science has not reached an intellectual dead end. Or perhaps this more reflects the boundedness of human intellect than the unbounded nature of scientific knowledge?

But the endless scientific frontier of Vannevar Bush ment something more than mere intellectual satisfaction. He was talking about the material utility of science, as though that was also an endless frontier. It was an analogy with the now long gone American Frontier: "Go West, young man!"

To earlier American settlers, squeezed out from overcrowded Europe, the American continent must surely have seemed like an "endless frontier". A vast, empty land, full of resources that were just waiting to be put to use by a people skilled in the European way of living: skilled in technology, science, and the art of large-scale public administration.

To the indigenous people of that time, the "endless frontier" was "home". For their way of living, the land was already full.

The physical American frontier is long gone. America is now filled by the new people who call it "home".

The old romantic notion lives on: Space, the final frontier. Nothing that we have learned about this new "Space" frontier shows any indication of being nearly so useful as was the "empty" American continent to the great flood of surplus Europeans during previous centuries.

And so we must return to that article of faith for modern civilization, that science is a frontier of endless material utility. It is an article of faith. There is no evidence for it.

Daniel Sarewitz observes that science has not been able to deliver for all Americans. (And I would say that if science hasn't been able to deliver for all Americans then it sure as hell hasn't delivered for a great many more other people on this overcrowded planet.) But he does not consider the possibility that the utility of scientific knowledge might be bounded. Instead, Sarewitz seems to be advocating "a socially oriented vision of science policy".

Sarewitz is pissing into a storm. The simple fact of the matter is that every technology saturates. The utility of administrative systems saturate. The evidence (to the disgracefully limited extent that scientists have studied it) is that the utility of scientific knowledge is presently well on course towards approaching an asymtotic limit.

Hypothesis: The utility of scientific knowledge will always fall short of ensuring well-being of everyone in any human population that continues to grow.
Nowadays the number of scientific publications is far far greater than when Vannevar Bush proselytized that science was an endless frontier. Rising inequity and environmental degradation testify that the utility of all that science is far less than for those relatively few publications in earlier times. The present utility of scientific publications reminds me of the Grand Banks cod fishery. As the years went by, bigger and more powerful vessels caught ever more fish. But the fish were smaller. And then it all ended.