Garrek Stemo

The Full Stack

Friday, May 24, 2024  ⚓︎

The modern economy runs on scientific, engineering, and manufacturing progress. J. Bradford DeLong, in his grand narrative Slouching Towards Utopia, describes modern history as being driven by economics. The modern era was brought into existence by the development of the modern corporation, globalization, and the industrial laboratory. All of these components are necessary. Michael Strevens paints a similar picture in portions of his book, The Knowledge Machine.

What many miss is the importance of nurturing all three of these ingredients. Politicians and administrators want the niceties that the confluence of these institutions brings and they want them now. They focus on the institutions closest to the output end of the pipeline, the part where the emerging product is becoming visible. The exciting part. Money then gets funneled to the last mile of the stack while input is neglected. This is a mistake. I will argue why governments must consider the full stack and not lose sight of the slower moving, but perhaps even more crucial, elements of the pipeline.

To mix metaphors, the technological stack can be thought of as a house. Basic science is the foundation. Here lies the forefront of human knowledge. It is the cutting edge. How the technological foundation is built will determine how the rest of the building can be constructed. This means choosing the right questions to pursue with a balance of scattershot, high-risk high-reward type research and clear pathways to practical technologies. The goal is to surface interesting questions that will open avenues that contain yet more interesting questions. From there applied science and engineering science take some of that basic knowledge and explore how it might be made into useful technologies. After applied science is the engineering phase. Ideas are worked until they can be made useful give the wants and needs of society.

Manufacturing is the next layer of the stack. By this I do not merely mean making the thing. Manufacturing is itself a complicated globe-spanning pipeline that includes procurement of raw materials and processing of those materials. Components fashioned are then shipped to hubs for final assembly. The process is an engineering effort that leads to economies of scale to make products affordable to consumers. Simply engineering a new product is not enough if producing it is expensive. An entirely different kind of engineer is required to scale an idea so that economies of scale can work its magic to successfully bring a product to market.

My focus is on the under-funded, slow moving bottom of the stack: basic science. Practitioners of basic science are often poor marketers of their craft. They often resent the market economy and do not recognize their place within it. They see themselves as outside of it. When describing the importance of their profession they talk in romantic terms, as being “passionate” and describing the innate curiosity of humankind as the driving force. This is all well and good (and is indeed the reason that I am a scientist) but another sense of “greater good” is the economic one: building the furnace of the economic engine that brings down the price of goods, raises standards of living, delivers medicines. Science is the bedrock of this economic movement that has been responsible for the enormous reduction in poverty over the long twentieth century. The sooner scientists recognize our role within the economic engine instead of resenting it, the better we can make the case for significant increases in basic research spending.

Now that I have obtained my Ph.D. and have achieved some stability as a working scientist, this topic will become a focus. What can be done to reverse the trend of declining spending on basic research? How can we increase the appetite for risk and take more chances on promising technologies? These and other questions will be explored in these virtual pages.