Britain is on the brink of losing its best scientific talent to foreign competition, the head of Britain’s best regarded science establishment has warned.

In an interview with The Times, Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society, said that the prospect of swingeing cuts to the science budget meant that universities would struggle to attract the best foreign researchers. British scientists were already being tempted by more generous grants available through stimulus packages in the United States, Canada and Germany.

The problem here is that science is a public good.

That is, the results, the output, is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Having discovered something about the universe we inhabit you cannot stop other people either knowing or using that knowledge. This causes economic problems in that, if you can\’t make a buck out of having found something out we generally assume that not enough people will go off and find things out.

So, because science is a public good we sibsidise it: this is the same basic calculation done about all public goods.#


However, you cannot then go around claiming that it\’s important that the science must be done in the UK. For we\’ve already agreed that it is a public good, that it is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Whether the finding things out stuff is done in Germany, the US, or Japan, makes no difference. Things still get found out and we can all use this new knowledge.

The very argument that leads to there being a subsidy in the first place is exactly what tells us that we don\’t need the science to be done in the UK…..thus arguing for subsidies to keep the science in the UK doesn\’t work.

8 thoughts on “So?”

  1. Agree whole heartedly with Mr Worstall (oh my God). Once stuff gets invented we can always buy it in ,license it etc without the huge up-front costs of primary research.

  2. The point, presumably, is that British science can be leveraged to help British business – see the example of Cambridge or, farther afield, San Francisco.

    Tim adds: Ah, but if we’re leveraging the science through the use of patents and copyrights then we’ve not got a public good any more, do we? Thus the argument in favour of any subsidy at all fails.

    My point is this: you can argue for subsidy on public goods grounds. But you cannot therefore argue for local subsidy on public goods grounds for by definition (well, this definition of science at least), a public good does not need to be consumed or generated locally.

  3. If I read that correctly, Lord Rees thinks the best British scientific talent is foreign.

    Or is this just a rent-seeker seeking continuation of rent?

    He is coming to the end of his 5-year term as President of the Royal Society. Over his term, how well has the Royal Society done on the science of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming?

    Nullius in Verba: and especially (IMHO) not the word of the last two presidents of the Royal Society.

    Best regards

  4. Tim,

    It’s not so much about patents and copyrights. It’s more about the effect of bringing lots of smart people together in one place, how those people often get together to form companies, and often do so in the places where they studied.

    Hewlett-Packard, Acorn (later ARM) and Google, for instance. I don’t know if it actually pays for the cost of research, but it’s a factor.

  5. Quite right, Lord Tim – but then much of the public argument in favour of “Science” that I’ve read in the last 50 years has been equally bogus. And I suspect that at least some of the scientists who’ve spouted it have been quite clever enough to know that.

  6. To summarise: whilst ideas are indeed non-rivalrous and non-excludable, in practice it costs as much to copy as to innovate, so it behaves as a private good.

    Tim adds: I refute it thusly.

    I need to find a new way to extract my favourite metal. A new source. I am doing so by combing the internet for potential sources of my favourite metal. Which minerals contain it, which of those minerals are processed where, which processing methods concentrate it in one waste or another?

    I have found 8 potential sources. All have been looked at by one person or another as scientific papers. The cumulative cost of the research I’ve read to find them is in the many millions of $. I got the results of that research for a couple of weeks of my time.

    Yes, my time is valuable, but not that valuable.

    This research that has been done and published is indeed a public good.

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