Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Role of government in science.

I was thinking about this for a while before Obama made that statement of putting science in its rightful place during his inauguration. Since that time, Scienceblogs has been abuzz with contributors writing about what (exactly) is the "rightful place of science"? I've been keeping track of some of these discussions, but since they are written mainly by scientists, I think there is a bit of a bias... (Note: I am of a science background, I still do science, but I also investigate policy. Thus the wierdness of the hats displayed in this blog.)

Anywho... I've been keeping a greater interest in the back-and-forth presented on The Questionable Authority. Today, there was another response-post on this topic. It got me into the writing mood, and I made a response. All of it was off-the-cuff, but I think that one of the major points that both Dunford and Sandefur don't discuss at length (maybe I missed it in other exchanges) is the environment as a public good. So I decided to respond.

You also don't describe those things that are otherwise listed as "externalities" of concern by business. Things like public goods or club goods.
For example, air and water quality affect many people, but the pollution of it is also caused by many people. (You could also argue that the people affected create a feedback loop of creating more pollutant because the want to buy stuff, the manufacture of which causes pollution.) However, there are two problems with air quality (or water quality) versus profit.

1) Air quality is a public good that is not (or not completely) considered in the course of business. These are costs that are spread out among the public, that are effectively paid by no one and suffered from by everyone.
2) Shifting baselines. (I don't mean the SciBlog.) People's memories are not good at remembering what things were like a long time ago, and completely fail at remembering what things were like before they were born, even when it is described to them.

Pollution of large public-goods like air and (large bodies of) water mean that changes occur slower than the ability of the human brain to acknowledge on its own (reducing us to use numbers and graphs to show long-term trends, and we all know where that argument can lead to -- just look at the AGW 'debates'). Therefore, one cannot bring a free market argument against industry on long-term incremental negative changes without an infusion of funding of science.
Incorporating the externalized factors of pollution is not something that is popular for business to do, especially if the subject is not shown to have 'serious scientific consensus' or if people don't see it as clearly as the nose on their face (again, look at the issue of AGW -- or cigarettes).

Furthermore, the first company to change to incorporate higher production costs relative to its competitors will likely be the first one to have the highest financial burden of shifting, and not likely to increase the loyalty of its purchasers (at least not until the reason for the switch becomes highly accepted in society -- again, look at shifts to CFLs and how it's framed in the AGW vs. energy efficiency meme). Due to this high cost burden of shifting (not to mention the need to change or upgrade manufacturing or training infrastructure), companies are likely going to put off the option until the option to change is better than the option of not changing (not the many reasons given for the failure of the US's Big Three).

On the other hand, governmental science can be used to help protect the access and quality of public goods, such as air quality and water quality. After all, there is little incentive for private industry to maximize public goods, unless they are allowed a monopoly on them and required to minimize profits. Then they become only slightly more expensive than the government, but still aching to change toward higher profit-margins (see how Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan has been moving from non-profit to for-profit over the past couple years).

Of course, one could well argue that one job of government is to protect public goods from destruction or decimation. However, entrusting the management of public goods to a government that has few checks, balances, or oversight means that we can get things like China's "Blue Skies" indexes, or Bush 43's forest 'management' and air pollution [non]reduction measures.

Winston Churchill said something about democracy being the worst form of government (save for all the others). I would say that government is the worst form of company to manage public goods (save for all the others). There's my 2 pennies. Now I'll stick this on my own blog. :)

No comments: