Saturday, January 31, 2009

Science Spending and Justice

Political philosophers champion many different distributive principles that provide us with a benchmark for measuring the justness of the policies of government. For example, we may ask what the government is going to do to help redress inequality in our society, be it socio-economic and/or cultural inequality. Indeed these concerns are arguably the dominant concerns of liberal egalitarians.

I myself am actually very sympathetic to the sensibilities underlying liberal egalitarianism; however, I believe that the principles often championed by philosophers (like Rawls's difference principle or luck egalitarianism) actually skew our understanding of what really constitutes justice and good government. This is so because we tend to take what I call the "narrow view" of justice. This view is narrow in two senses. Firstly, it focuses on a very small list of things that actually matter to people's well being (namely $$); secondly, it is narrow in that it looks at the short-term rather than long-term picture of things.

Furthermore, the egalitarian instincts that philosophers appeal to actually reflect sensibilities that evolved from the immediate-return nomadic hunter societies we historically lived in but do not inhabit anymore (I will post more about this at a future time). And thus today, in large, complex, and highly developed societies these instincts are actually a form of cognitive bias that impair our ability to make reasonable judgements concerning what constitutes a fair distribution of the different benefits of social cooperation.

The central aspiration of decent government, according to this narrow vision of justice, is to pursue policies that will transfer particular goods (i.e. wealth and income) from some (i.e. the "haves") and give them to others (i.e. the "have nots"). Now one danger with this exclusive focus on re-distributing wealth is that it can lead us to ignore other issues, issues that also raise fundamental concerns of justice. Case in point-- what should the government's stance be on science? (e.g. how much to fund basic science?).

I have raised this concern many times before (see here). And in the past week it appears that Canada and the United States are going in two opposite directions in this respect. This story in the Globe this week notes that the Conservative government's budget cut the budget of Genome Canada, a non-profit non-governmental funding organization that finances large-scale science in Canada, from $140 million to $0 {though from this info from Genome Canada itself suggests that this might not be an accurate story of the current state of funding}. Contrast that negative story with what is happening in the United States. According to this "News of the Week" piece in Science, "academic researchers are on the verge of receiving a major influx of federal funding as part of a 2-year, $825 billion economic stimulus package moving rapidly through Congress".

To appreciate why justice requires an investment in science one has to have a nuanced public ethic that goes beyond the simplistic assumptions of "narrow justice". The word “science” comes from the Latin scientia, which means “having knowledge”. Knowledge is humanity’s greatest tool for improving the quality of life we can expect to enjoy on this planet (indeed this was something that Marx appreciated, hence why I think his account of human history is one worth taking seriously).

What will an investment in science likely bring? How about greater wealth and better health. Of course the critic might claim that creating more wealth and health is itself not the real goal; rather, what really matters is ensuring that these benefits are "fairly distributed". Well, much depends on the time-frame one adopts (in terms of measuring how fair the distribution is) as well as an appreciation of the interconnection between these different benefits. These points are addressed in my latest (though admittedly unconventional!) paper here.

Society is not a zero sum game, and realizing that is essential if we are to transcend the instincts that have been selected for when things really were a zero sum game (e.g. when food was gathered daily for rapid consumption). And so our evolutionary history is part of the reason why we continue to neglect the relation between justice and science policy. We have evolved to deal with what Dawkin's calls "middle world"-- and historically this was a world where we existed in small communities and had to decide how to share the rewards of the "immediate return" economy. But such sensibilities leave us ill-prepared for grappling with the question of justice in delayed-return conditions. And that is why science policy tends to be ignored by egalitarian philosophers (and almost everyone else).