Frequently, it is tough to challenge respected researchers.
Our story starts with a June 28, 2010 econlife post:
In 1910, as a 22 year old Russian immigrant, Dr. Selman A. Waksman arrived in Philadelphia. Through the education he accessed, the mentors who supported him, and the businesses and federal government who gave him research money, 30 years later he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Medicine for developing Streptomycin.
BUT…It did not really happen exactly that way.
Actually, the Waksman route to discovery took a detour through his graduate assistant, Albert Schatz. Recently found lab notebooks document the role played by Schatz during the 1940s at Rutgers. Using pots of soil and a chicken with a TB type of infection, in a basement near Dr. Waksman’s lab, Dr. Schatz isolated and named Streptomycin. Unmentioned by Waksman, even when accepting the Nobel Prize for the accomplishment, Schatz formally sued for recognition. The academic community shunned him for challenging the work of an esteemed scientist.
And that takes us to a great Econtalk discussion about the resistance to new ideas when an esteemed scholar has established the opposite. Whether looking at the discovery of Streptomycin, a challenge to a revered psychology experiment about people walking slowly, or the conclusions of economists Saez and Picketty about income stagnation, it is tough to challenge the status quo.
And yet, good policy decisions require accurate facts.
I especially recommend this Econtalk discussion of scientific resistance to revision and here and here are the Guardian and the NY Times articles that tell more of the Schatz story. Finally, my original econlife post on Dr. Waksman and the one on the people who challenged Saez and Picketty.
It is so tempting to assume that we get the best results when we tell people what to do. If we want to use less oil, then pass laws that encourage us to invent better batteries. Yes?
Using Selman Waksman as an example, retired Harvard professor David S. Landes, would probably answer, “No.” Waksman’s story starts in 1910, when, as a 22 year old Russian immigrant, he arrives in Philadelphia. The tale reaches its climax when he receives the 1952 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Medicine for developing streptomycin. Waksman’s talents flourished in the United States because of the education he accessed, the mentors who supported him, and the businesses and federal government who gave him research money.
Summarized by Landes, Waksman was successful because of 1) “Contact and exchange” which resulted from “multiple points of intellectual entry” where ideas are nurtured, developed, and shared 2) Individual ambition, drive, and intelligence 3) Luck 4) An ongoing stream of new tools and technology. The result is technological progress, a key ingredient of economic growth.
All of this takes me to a recent NY Times article about “idea incubators” and the convergence of academia, private business and (sometimes) government. With a program at M.I.T. as the article’s focus, an “entity” is described through which academic researchers can access business funding for their work at the idea stage. Fostering the potential of ideas, the concept is innovative because most seed money has been available at the development stage, after a good or service has materialized.
The Economic Lesson
Illustrating our economic growth, graphs with the bowed out lines called production possibilities frontiers will move to the right when we optimize opportunities for innovation. Economic growth is the best way to solve our current fiscal and financial problems.
I recommend Dr. Landes’s book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Are Some Nations Rich and Others So Poor?