I’ve been in Malaysia and Singapore this week, conducting workshops on the future of science and innovation. It’s been a very interesting week, talking to scientists in Penang and Kuala Lumpur about the future of science, and what role they see Malaysia playing in that future. The people I’ve been talking to are pretty convinced that Malaysia, which has a respectable but not world-class scientific community, can evolve into a global player in science in the next couple decades. They don’t want to emulate American and European institutions: you won’t see multi-billion dollar particle accelerators here any time soon. But they’re pretty aware that cloud computing, cheap genomics, and other inexpensive research tools will lower the economic bars to develop world-class competence in some important fields.
So I was especially struck by Gregg Zachary’s latest column in the New York Times, which asks, “might cheap science from low-wage countries help keep American innovators humming?” At least a few policy analysts and scholars studying global trends in science think that the United States can profit from the growth of scientific excellence in the developing world.
Americans have long profited from low-cost manufactured goods, especially from Asia. The cost of those material “inputs” is now rising. But because of growing numbers of scientists in China, India and other lower-wage countries, “the cost of producing a new scientific discovery is dropping around the world,” says Christopher T. Hill, a professor of public policy and technology at George Mason University.
American innovators — with their world-class strengths in product design, marketing and finance — may have a historic opportunity to convert the scientific know-how from abroad into market gains and profits. Mr. Hill views the transition to “the postscientific society” as an unrecognized bonus for American creators of new products and services.
Mr. Hill’s insight, which he first described in a National Academy of Sciences journal article last fall, runs counter to the notion that the United States fails to educate enough of its own scientists and that “shortages” of them hamper American competitiveness.
The opposite may actually be true. By tapping relatively low-cost scientists around the world, American innovators may actually strengthen their market positions….
Precisely because the gap between basic science and commercial innovations is large, Mr. Hill’s postscientific society makes sense to innovators on the front lines. One implication for the future is that the United States “won’t have to import so many scientists,” says Stephen D. Nelson, associate director of policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The association, which for decades has generally favored policies to expand the ranks of American scientists, is devoting a portion of its annual policy seminar next month to talk about the “postscience” situation.
Industry, meanwhile, is adapting to a world where scientific goods can come from anywhere — and fewer scientists work on abstract problems unrelated to the market. “It is no accident that many corporate labs have fallen apart,” Sean M. Maloney, executive vice president of Intel, says. “They were science farms looking for problems.”
What is this post-scientific society that Hill writes about? As he explains it,
A post-scientific society will have several key characteristics, the most important of which is that innovation leading to wealth generation and productivity growth will be based principally not on world leadership in fundamental research in the natural sciences and engineering, but on world-leading mastery of the creative powers of, and the basic sciences of, individual human beings, their societies, and their cultures.
Just as the post-industrial society continues to require the products of agriculture and manufacturing for its effective functioning, so too will the post-scientific society continue to require the results of advanced scientific and engineering research. Nevertheless, the leading edge of innovation in the post-scientific society, whether for business, industrial, consumer, or public purposes, will move from the workshop, the laboratory, and the office to the studio, the think tank, the atelier, and cyberspace.
There are growing indications that new innovation-based wealth in the United States is arising from something other than organized research in science and engineering. Companies based on radical innovations, exemplified by network firms such as Google, YouTube, eBay, and Yahoo, create billions in new wealth with only modest contributions from industrial research as it has traditionally been understood. Huge and successful firms like Wal-Mart, FedEx, Dell, Amazon.com, and Cisco have grown to be among the largest in the world, not as much by mastering the intricacies of physics, chemistry, or molecular biology as by structuring human work and organizational practices in radical new ways. The new ideas and concepts that support these post-scientific society companies are every bit as subtle and important as the fundamental natural science and engineering research findings that supported the growth of firms such as General Motors, DuPont, and General Electric in the past half century. But innovation in these two generations of firms is fundamentally different.
The piece is well worth reading, as it has a number of provocative implications for science policy, innovation policy, and education. Essentially, Hill is arguing that a decline in America’s monopoly on science– even if that does happen– is not to be lamented any more than the shrinking of the agricultural workforce: it doesn’t reflect a weakness, but a more fundamental shift to a different kind of economy, in which the sources of value aren’t facts, but what you do with them.