"A Strategic Analysis of Science & Technology Policy", by Harvey A. Averch

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Harvey A. Averch, John Hopkins University Press,1985 . 216 p.

I found this lost treasure buried at a second hand bookstore. It dates back some few decades, and the USA was certainly different in 1985, when this book was published. Back then, the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam war, the energy crisis, high unemployment, and very high inflation and escalating interest rates, made any political planning difficult. There was even a raised fundamental concern over the future of American prosperity.

Science and Technology (S&T) policy is (mostly) always endorsed on any political campaign or government. The argumentation for the benefit of S&T is deemed self-evident, but not much understanding or studies are available to quantify that. Not in 1985 and not today, as a recent article in Nature points out.

This book aims to provide a reductionist approach. In doing so I believe it misses much of the interactions within its facets and among other policy areas. The author had an extensive experience as economist when he prepared the book, and that stands clear when reading it. He devotes a great effort to structure all issues into statements. These itemized findings are then weighted for the best strategic approach.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I believe the world is much different, and so are the conditions that shape any strategic policy, including S&T. The book brings nonetheless very interesting thoughts. Here are some:

-Scientist’s claims to increase budget will always be there, regardless of the current amount. Their only goal seems to be reaching a saturation point where everyone who can do S&T is employed. At the same time, a constant budget pressure is a healthy filter which spreads S&T-ist wider and deeper into society. This artificial market cap also helps “optimize” the science per dollar. Technical supervision of S&T policy should then be left to scientist, but only those with the understanding of these socio-economic constrains.

-Basic science does not aim for profit and therefore is non-commercial. It is unlimited but unpredictable in direction and magnitude. Furthermore new knowledge derives ultimately from basic science, and therefore could be commercial. It follows that a certain degree of “free riders” in basic science are necessary. Results directed research for basic science is not always a good policy.

-Mid term measurable goals for S&T policy, literacy, university enrollment, social reach, minority balance, … should be set and pursued. This certainty surpass election mandates, but so does the strategic importance of S&T leadership.

These are just some examples. This is a dense book which covers many topics. Truth be said I didn´t find it easy to read or clear in explanations. It has been dancing around my desk for almost a year now. Sometimes I had the impression that the author is too skeptic towards scientists. I did hesitate for weeks whether to recommend it or not. I finally decided to publish this review as it is indeed surprisingly difficult to find online material about S&T strategic policy. At the time this book was published it broke ground approaching the issues with that economic and strategic perspective. Unfortunately it is not  very didactic, at least not to me. Some perspectives are outdated and yet some are still very valid.

<<There is [...] a cultural problem concerning [S&T] policy analysis. Those who forged analytical and quantitative styles of policy analysis and debate never were particularly interested in S&T policy. Policy analysis has its roots primarily in economics and operations research. Its core vision contains single decision makers, maximizing expected utility, profits, or social welfare, with analysts at their side, helping them to  choose "rationally". S&T policy is ill-formed with respect to this vision, with only partially identified decision makers and without specific, well-defined objective functions; it is not easily amenable to methods, approaches, and attitudes developed by economics and operations research.>>

Harvey A Averch, this book, p. 192

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