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CAPITOL LETTERS (Ep. 12): The Truth per Thaler Spent (or the Return on Insightfulness)

CAPITOL LETTERS (Ep. 12): The Truth per Thaler Spent (or the Return on Insightfulness) The Economics of Science

That Economics is a science is a statement against which it is difficult to argue. Be that as it may, enquiring “what kind of science it is” (exact or social science) should be taken as a pertinent question in its own right. Economists, both those that have already made a name for themselves and those that are still learning the ropes needed to master the theoretical or applied approaches, are the ones expected to have addressed, in foro interno, such dilemmas. Notably, the profession is far from reaching a consensus among its members in such regard. However, investigating what sets economics apart that it finds itself in the position to judge the other sciences, actually, Science, is a track of inquiry that is rarely taken, let alone trod, yet one that could prove surprising if we consider all that it may reveal. The type of judgement we are alluding to refers to one’s capacity of logical reasoning, not that of bringing to a court of justice, i.e., of identifying culprits and casualties. Economic analysis is a way of judging/reasoning about things.

Science represents, first and foremost, a systematized way of knowing which is directed toward identifying the general truth and fundamental laws pertaining to the world and life (by which we mean an approach that explores the “physical” rather than the “metaphysical”). What is particularly interesting to reflect upon is that, regardless of the physical or metaphysical “territory” where the search for truth and foundations takes place, such an endeavour presupposes, inevitably/invariably, assumed ends and adequate means, the need of knowing (a mundane affair in spite of its aura of nobility) and the required resources (that remain scarce amid an abundance of claims that acclaim their foremost importance) to see it through. Therefore, Science, in its own right, must be undertaken under the aegis of an economizing behaviour (economics) within an economic context (the economy). By conforming to economic reasoning, Science serves economic reality.

Economists, and they are not alone in this, can consider such an argument as satisfactory in accrediting/justifying not so much a primacy of economics among the sciences or over Science, but its legitimacy as a judge, an analyst of the scientific world and life. Those labouring at such an endeavour are first of all individuals and only in the subsidiary scientists: they act in a social context more than on their own; they engage in what should be seen as normal competitive behaviour which, in no way paradoxically, incentivizes them to cooperate; seek the gratification of their results and/or the incurred efforts by considerable wages and/or honorary positions etc. This has been the case for more than one hundred years, if not 150, since the gentleman scientist who could revolutionize his scientific fiefdom at night after their day job, or as a passion funded from inherited resources, passed into oblivion in favour great cooperative laboratories funded by government more often than not and by institutional laboratories chasing grants to stay afloat. What is particular to economics is that, despite its operational autonomy, it also needs the prior clarification of the ethical position from which we deem actions to be (in)efficient. This requirement also applies when we do an economic assessment of scientific endeavours.

Therefore, the economic side of things comes along with a particular ethos: for example, scientists value things, but they must also operate from within a value system; oftentimes, they set forth that they are offering, in exchange for public financing, public goods (which are hard to pinpoint, while private benefits are much easier to identify); intra-professional validation is obtained through quasi-economic performance indicators (scientometrics) which are frequently set as a result of a compromise (quasi-political) which is suspect of compromising the spirit of scientific inquiry. Another angle is that, despite professions of objectivity, scientific inquiries have been coopted into moral and political debates, with certain scientists (often the ones less likely to be kept busy by brilliance in their chosen field) actively engaging in activism and courting public adulation as explainers or moral arbiters in societies unmoored from traditional sources of moral authority. For these, objectivity is a fig leaf covering the very human need to climb the greasy pole of social status, or even an empty ritual utterance, fuelling the kind of doubt in scientists (if not… Science) that had not been present decades ago, in societies which were, at once, both less educated and more religious. These doubts steadily advance from the disbelieving to the adversarial and then to farcical.

Naturally, the above suite does not amount to a pre-pronounced verdict, but should be considered only a selection of legitimate concerns. Such a broad approach to the “economic problem” (applied to Science) is not the product of randomness: no judgment concerning efficiency is convincing in an ethical void, and any economist that is worth his salt cannot ignore this. The changes in Science – its relevance underpinning our world through the fruits of scientific inquiry, its morphological changes as Big Science becomes reliant on large organizations and on large funders, and its social change from a band of brethren to hierarchical and bureaucratized groups whose most eminent representatives labor over application forms and deadlines rather than the microscope – are all indicative of the intertwining of the “methodical study of part of material world” and the “science of scarce means relative to abundant ends”, economics, and we do ourselves a disservice by insisting on scientific romanticism to the detriment of economic clear-headedness, such as may still be found.

Under the heading “The Economics of Science: Adding Value to and Extracting Value from Research”, the Amfiteatru Economic journal brings up for debate matters on which economists (or researchers coming from other fields that are interdisciplinarily linked to economics) will either polemicize or will manage to reconcile – all this while conforming to the “right order of things” in a realm where order and the right measure are considered to be at home: Science. 

(September 19, 2022 – Washington, D.C.) 

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

Note:

CAPITOL LETTERS is a series of articles occasioned by the author’s presence in Washington, D.C. as Romanian Cultural Institute Fellow, studying industrial revolutions’ imprint on the cultural sector.
The opinions hereby expressed by the author remain his exclusive responsibility and do not engage, in any manner or measure, the organizations to which he is affiliated or with which he collaborates.

 

 
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