Listening to On Point yesterday, and host Tom Ashbrook was discussing with several scientists and the editor of MIT's Technology Review Jason Pontin -- the latest issue is devoted to "Why We Can't Solve Big Problems".
My Dad was an engineer by training --- Newark College of Engineering practical engineering certificate in mechanical engineering (now NJIT), he also studied ship design. My Uncle (my Dad's brother-in-law) was an MIT trained engineer. So as I grew older I did notice the copies of Technology Review around the house (I was only reading Sports Illustrated at the time I first noticed this). My Dad wanted me to be an engineer if I wasn't going to be a HS basketball coach. He never did discourage me, however, when I told him I was studying economics and philosophy. He just told me that as a country we need to build things.
Part of my attraction to economics and philosophy was that in the way that I was exposed to those disciplines the critique of socialism and scientism, and the intimate connection between those two critiques, was stressed right from the start. It really wasn't a teenage rebellion against my Dad, it was I think from the start something that I wanted to share with my Dad. Yes, we need to build things, but who is to do the building and at what cost?
Listen to this discussion carefully. The scientists on the show believe we should be pursuing technological solutions to technological problems without regard to costs, and that this is the role of government. In fact, during the radio show Jason Pontin actually blames the lack of scientific progress on the anti-science attitude of conservativve politicians who have blocked funding of basic research. Seriously! A caller blames in on the Tea Party, and she claimed to be a scientist herself at Vanderbilt. Nobody called them on this politicalization of scientific funding.
Early on in my intellectual journey I was reading the great Michael Polanyi --- first Science, Faith and Society followed by The Study of Man and then Personal Knowledge. Polanyi more than any other figure in the philosophy of science has influenced the way I think about scientific inquiry and scientific progress. If you haven't already done so, read immediately his The Republic of Science. A major influence on Polanyi and why he shifted from a phyiscal chemist to a philosopher of science, was the fate of many of his scientific colleagues under communist regimes in East and Central Europe and the Soviet Union. That fate was not kind to them intellectually or in many cases physically. Government planning of scientific endeavors is not healthy for mind or body. Science must be free of the whims of Kings and Queens, and in our time it must be free from the whims of politicians. For those who doubt this read John Baker's Science and the Planned State (1945).
The critical question that must always be raised is how to sort through the array of technologically feasible solutions those which are most economical from those that are not. That question cannot be answered in the arena of government funding and planning of science. The Econmic Laws of Scientific Research by Terrence Kealey is an outstanding counter-punch to the sort of arguments that were being pushed on the radio show. Even if we accept the premise that science is a public good, questions remain about the funding, the production, and the dissemination of the results of scientific inquiry.
The market economy is not to be blamed for lack of scientific progress --- the work of Joel Mokyr I would argue demonstrates persuasively how through history progress in science and material well-being results when scientists/entrepreneurs face the right incentives to turn technologically novel ideas into commerically viable innovations.
So technological problems do require technologial solutions, but the only solutions that lead to progress are those that are economically viable. This is the role that economic calcution plays in society. And rational economic calculation is not possible outside the context of the private property market economy and the price signals that guide decisions and the profit and loss accounting that disciplines wishful conjectures.