To Win In The 21st Century, America Must Step Up Its Science Game

James Pethokoukis

The linkage between science and technological progress may seem obvious. When humanity didn’t have much of the latter, it also didn’t know much of the former. Economic historian Joel Mokyr describes the time before the Industrial Revolution as a “a world of engineering without mechanics, iron-making without metallurgy, farming without soil science, mining without geology, water-power without hydraulics, dye-making without organic chemistry, and medical practice without microbiology and immunology.”

And even during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, great advances were made in some sectors with little scientific understanding. As the IR rolled on, however, Mokyr describes an emergent division of labor where “British practical people discovered things that worked, and French theoreticians and German chemists uncovered the underlying science.” Today, there’s no doubt that continuing technological breakthroughs, invention, and innovation — and thus long-term economic growth — depend on scientific insights. Keep ‘em coming, ASAP. It would sure be worrisome if the rate of discovery slowed. 

But maybe the pace of discovery has diminished, and that helps explain the long-run downshift in advanced economy productivity growth. In the new paper “Is the rate of scientific progress slowing down?” by Tyler Cowen and Ben Southwood, the two researchers conclude that “there is good and also wide-ranging evidence that the rate of scientific progress has indeed slowed down. In the disparate and partially independent areas of productivity growth, total factor productivity, GDP growth, patent measures, researcher productivity, crop yields, life expectancy, and Moore’s Law we have found support for this claim. … One implication here is we should not be especially optimistic about the productivity slowdown, as that notion is commonly understood, ending any time soon.”

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