« Boffo, Marco (2013) Interrogating the knowledge‐based economy: from ...»
Thirdly, and in tight connection with the previous points, if one were to accept the restrictive emphasis of neoclassical economics on efficient allocation of scarce resources as defining the purview of the discipline,48 then the production of knowledge and information, characterised as cumulative, non-divisible, (partially) non-excludable and non-rival (Foray, 2006; Rullani, 2004), should be shunned from the subject matter and province of application of economics itself. Or, put otherwise, if one were to accept genuinely the proclamations of the centrality of knowledge within contemporary capitalism and the characterisation of the latter as KBE, this should command the abandonment of the neoclassical framework. Members of the discipline have reacted to this paradox in different ways, without expressing a shared consensus or synthesis (Mirowski, 2006, 2009b, 2011). Thus, for some, ‘durable economic principles’ still offer guidance ‘in today’s frenetic business environment’, as ‘[t]echnology changes’ but ‘[e]conomic laws do not’ (Shapiro, Varian, 1998, pp.1-2).
Indeed, if, as microeconomic principles have it, price has to equal marginal cost of production under perfect competition, then the price of knowledge and information should be equal to (or tend towards) zero. Although one might object that it is the ‘marginal cost of production’ which is ‘very high’, while ‘the marginal cost of reproduction is zero (nonrival good)’ (Foray, See Robbins’s (1932, p.15) landmark definition of economics as ‘the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between given ends and scarce means which have alternative uses’.
2006, p.105), this (rather than Foray’s dilemma, discussed in section 1.3) remains the central paradox of the KBE: ‘even though economic theory is severely biased towards markets, according to the criteria of economics, the laws of economics tell us that the laws of economics themselves are invalid, since’ knowledge and ‘information should not be priced as... scarce’ resources (Perelman, 1998, p.89). However, at a deeper level, the putative rise of the KBE and EK within economics could be seen as yet another example of the rise of neoliberalism within the discipline, signalling the implicit shift of the definition of “the economic problem” from Robbins’s (1932) focus on the allocation of scarce resources to Hayek’s (1945) conception of markets as processors of information and coordinators of cognition (whereby markets are seen as reconciling ‘participants’ mental states through the computation of prices, rather than simply shift around physical goods between people who’ desire ‘them with greater or lesser urgency’, Mirowski, 2011, p.26).
1.4.3) A new bottle for old wine As if the paradoxes and contradictions presented in the sections above were not enough, and to add insult to injury, a stable body of scholarship that could be safely gathered under the heading of the EK (as defined by the main proponent of the expression, Foray, 2006, who claims for it the status of ‘new economic subdiscipline’, p.xi) is nowhere to be found within mainstream economics. Indeed, Foray’s definition of the ‘field of analysis’ of the EK can be
decomposed as follows:
- PROPOSITION 1: the EK ‘covers the’ economic ‘properties of’ knowledge ‘governing its production and reproduction’;
- PROPOSITION 2: the EK covers ‘the historical and institutional conditions (such as information technology or patent rights) determining’ the ‘treatment and processing’ of knowledge ‘in a decentralized economy’ (Foray, 2006, p.1).
Foray is motivated by the ‘conception’ that ‘knowledge has something more than information’ because it ‘empowers its possessors with the capacity for intellectual or physical action’, being ‘fundamentally a matter of cognitive capability’ (p.4). This is important because ‘the reproduction of knowledge and the reproduction of information are clearly different phenomena’ since, while ‘one takes place through learning’ and always requires ‘[m]obilization of a cognitive resource’, ‘the other takes place simply through duplication’ (p.4) (the full implications of this conception of knowledge as cognitive capability, though, will be addressed in sub-section 1.4.4). However, although Foray points out that the EK ‘should not be confused with the economics of research’, ‘the economics of innovation’, or ‘the economics of
information’ (p.1),49 he is also quick to recognise the existence of two different views of the EK:
one where there ‘is no real difference between knowledge and information, which means that the scope of the economics of knowledge is defined very broadly’,50 and a more ‘restrictive conception’ of the EK, which ‘excludes problems of economic choice in situations of incomplete and uncertain information and focuses more specifically on... “expertise” – namely, knowledge’ (Foray, 2006, p.2). For Foray, navigating ‘between these two conceptions is difficult’, and the ‘definition of the scope of the discipline... depends on one’s conception of knowledge and information’ (Foray, 2006, p.3).51 Indeed, the difficulty of disentangling knowledge from information is evident in PROPOSITION 1, which posits the centrality of the nature and properties of knowledge (i.e. its character of public, semi-public, or private good) within the scope of the EK. As discussed above, and implicitly recognised by Foray, for whom ‘the main dilemma of the economics of knowledge’ remains ‘the conflict between the social goal of efficient use of knowledge once it has been produced and the goal of providing ideal motivation to the private producer’ (2006, p.113), this can be said to be the “core” scholarly contribution of economics to the rhetoric and concept of the KBE.
However, if one directs attention to the ways in which mainstream economics has been deployed to understand scientific activity itself – i.e. the principal (though not exclusive) consciously pursued process of production and reproduction of knowledge – two separate bodies of work are distinguishable.52 Nonetheless, both are equally disappointing and unhelpful in identifying and tackling the ‘historical and institutional conditions’ determining the production, ‘treatment and processing’ of knowledge ‘in a decentralized economy’, as per PROPOSITION 2 of Foray’s (2006, p.1) definition. Indeed, on the one hand, it is possible to This attempt to differentiate the EK from previously existing economic sub-disciplines echoes earlier ‘appeals to an “economics of science” … as contrasted with an economics of technological change’ (Sent, 1999, p.96) and, potentially, David and Foray’s (1995) earlier critique of the NSI approach arguing for a shift in analytical emphasis away from national institutions and economic growth and in favour of the distribution of knowledge itself.
It is under this heading that Foray rubrics the work of Hayek (1945), Arrow (1962a, 1962b), Simon (1982) and Machlup (1984), who he sees as the precursors of the EK (Foray, 2006, pp.1-2).
Foray’s distinction between knowledge and information hinges on the difference existing in French between the meaning of connaissance and savoir whereby, while both allow action, the latter form of knowledge is distinguished from the former in light of having been certified and having received ‘institutional testing’ (Foray, 2006, p.6). The same distinction, albeit in a different theoretical context, is referred to by Gorz (2003, pp.13-15; 38-40; 41-48; 105-112).
Focus here is on mainstream economics. However, other constituencies (such as the historians of science and technology, the sociologists of science, the science policy experts and, last but not least, the real working scientists) have been active participants in the debates around the funding of science and, more broadly, its economic aspects. These debates have taken place in a heated context, marked by a shift in sources of funding (from the state to the market) and the so-called Science Wars (i.e. the fierce intellectual controversy between scientific realists and postmodernist critics about the nature and legitimacy of science and scientific enquiry) in the United States in the 1990s. For critical assessment of these issues, these constituencies and their views, see Sent, 1999, Mirowski, Van Horn, 2005, and Mirowski, 2011.
identify the work of mainstream economists who, partly motivated by the extension of the application of economic theory to issues and subject matter traditionally thought to be beyond the purview of economics (Sent, 1999; Hands, 2001),53 have focused on the behaviour of economically rational individual scientists (Diamond, 1988, 1996; Shi, 2001; Wible, 1998a, 1998b) posited as “scientific entrepreneurs” and “scientific consumers” engaging in scientific communities depicted as “exchange organisations” (Shi, 2001), selecting theory and research projects on the basis of cost-benefit analysis, and liable to misconduct or fraud depending on the outcome of constrained optimisation problems (Wible, 1998b). Otherwise, focus has been on investigating the institutional arrangements and mechanisms allowing for the optimal allocation of scientific research efforts, often with providing justification for ‘state or nonmarket funding of “science”, the difference between “pure” and “applied” science, or the economic incentives’ and (non-pecuniary) reward structures faced by individual scientists (Sent, 1999, pp.97) as sole concerns (see, for example: Dasgupta, David, 1987, 1994; David,
1998. See also Stephan, 1996 for a review of this literature, and Foray, 2006, ch. 8 on the economic incentives for knowledge openness; Dasgupta, David, 1994 can be read as a “manifesto” for this approach, which they call the “new economics of science”). However, this body of work has been criticised for remaining ‘largely silent about the influence of’ its ‘analyses on the content of science’ itself, for its analysis ‘carried out at such a generic level that “science” becomes conflated with “knowledge” in general’ (irrespective of disciplinary boundaries, as well as intellectual and material determinants and constraints of research within and across different disciplines and scientific fields), and for their scant attempts ‘to connect with any historically specific science or concrete institutional structures’ (Sent 1999, p.97).
On the other hand, science theory has recently taken an ‘economic turn’ of its own whereby, ‘[m]uch like cognitive psychology … evolutionary biology … and sociological theory’, ‘economics is no longer’ understood as ‘just a subject for science theory’, but has ‘become an important resource to be used in science theory’ itself (Hands, 2001, p.354). This movement originates from the work of philosophers of science operating within the normative tradition who are motivated to use mainstream economics to resolve the tensions between the “truthful” character of knowledge and its irredeemably social origins (Tyfield, 2012).
Presenting itself as the ‘economics of scientific knowledge’ (henceforth ESK), ‘one of the youngest members in the heterogeneous field of “Science Studies”’, this body of work pursues ‘the application of concepts and methods of economic analysis to the study of the epistemic For example, this motivation is explicitly acknowledged by Shi (2001) and Wible (1998b). For broader discussion of economics imperialism, i.e. the extension of (micro)economic theory to subject matter previously thought to be beyond the disciplinary purview of economics, see Fine, Milonakis, 2009.
nature and value of scientific knowledge’ (Zamora Bonilla, 2012, p.823). Thus, it comprises work attempting ‘to understand scientific research as a process of rational cost-benefit decision making … or of optimisation of an epistemic utility function’, or through ‘the idea that science is basically an institution for the exchange of items of knowledge, a “marketplace of ideas”’ (Zamora Bonilla, 2012, p.827). In doing so, the aim of the ESK is ‘to “naturalise” philosophical debate by grounding it in (social) scientific methods that provide scientific justification for philosophical conclusions’ (Tyfield, 2012, p.13; similarly, see Hands, 2001).