Saturday, February 28, 2009

Books are an Appropriate Technology

Think about it. They are useful, affordable and durable. They can withstand the harsh conditions of the developing world, and don't pollute the environment (indeed they are made from renewable resources and can be recycled). Just because a technology has been around for centuries doesn't mean it isn't appropriate.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Why does USAID have few people of retirement age?

Source: "Uncle Sam Must Learn to Slow the Brain Drain," Joe Davidson, The Washington Post, February 26, 2009.

I wonder why USAID has such a young workforce. I probably can guess. It might be that eight years of the Bush administration have encouraged its staff to get out. Or that the work in danger spots of the world is best done by younger people. It might also be that the Agency grew very large in the Viet Nam days, and that the people who joined in those days were replaced by younger people in the last few years.

Too bad, in that there was once a lot of understanding of nation building in the Agency, embodied in people who gained that understanding through long years of experience, and that understanding seems more needed now than in many years.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tiny Houses

The Economist has an article this week on tiny houses, a movement in the United States.
The idea is to offer a greener and cheaper alternative to the dread McMansion.
The article specifically mentions to firms selling them:
Check out the Small House Society that bills itself as the voice for the Small House Movement.

Then of course there is the McMansion movement.
In 1980, according to the National Association of Home Builders, the median single-family home sold was 1,570 square feet. By 2005 that had expanded to 2,235 square feet. The indications now, though, are that the trend is to scale back. According to the Census Bureau, the median size of home starts dropped to 2,114 square feet in the fourth quarter of 2008, down more than 100 square feet from the first quarter of the year.
Comment: Is this "Appropriate Technology"? It is probably a move toward a more appropriate style of life. And of course one hopes that the technology used in building these tiny houses is appropriate. However, if we believe Le Corbusier -- that "a house is a machine for living in" -- perhaps tiny houses are an appropriate technology for those machines in which we live.

Thoughts about UNESCO's Social and Human Sciences Program

I have been thinking about this program, which appears quite strange to me. This is the smallest of UNESCO's five programs.

I, like most Americans, tend to think about the social and behavioral sciences as linked. This is not true for UNESCO. Indeed, there does not seem to be a place in the UNESCO program for psychology and cognitive science -- strange given the emphasis in the organization on education.

I understand that the term "human sciences" includes philosophy and ethics (which UNESCO distinguishes from philosophy), and that the term comes from the French influence on UNESCO. The Social and Human Science program includes significant emphasis on ethics (of science and technology). It also includes efforts related to human rights, and poverty. Apparently these latter activities focus on practical analysis more than on philosophical discussion.

The program also has a component dealing with sports and doping in sports. Is that social or human science? I doubt it! On the other hand, if the member nations require UNESCO to program activities related to sports and doping, where else should they be placed?

The flagship effort of this program is Management of Social Transformation (MOST). It takes a problem based approach rather than a disciplinary approach. That is, rather than have programs on economics, sociology and/or anthropology UNESCO seeks to bring all the social sciences to bear on the management of social transformations.

I got to thinking about what exactly are the social sciences. Wikipedia's entry on the subject is helpful, but perhaps not as good as I hoped. I think of the in groups:
  • sociology, anthropology, archaeology, ethnography
  • economics with its subfields such as agricultural economics
  • political science
  • management sciences (focusing on the study of formal organizations including government -- public administration)
  • linguistics
  • human geography and demography
Wikipedia also includes part of the study of law within the social sciences, stating that legal studies involve both the social sciences and the humanities.

I think of history as a social science, and some historical work seems to be done within UNESCO's Social and Human Sciences Program, but UNESCO's ambitious series of histories seems to be centered in its Culture Program.

So too I think of area studies as a field of social sciences, applying a whole range of social sciences to understand societies within geographic regions (Latin American Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Asian Studies). Area studies programs exist in many universities, bringing a different kind of scientist to the field.

I think that the international financial institutions (World Bank, IMF, etc.) tend to take the responsibility among intergovernmental organizations for development economics, WTO and UNCTAD for trade economics, and organizations such as FAO, WHO and UNIDO for economics in their fields (agricultural economics, health economics, industrial economics respectively). Similarly, I suppose that the UNFPA takes some lead responsibility for demography and human geography. Still, it seems to me that UNESCO devotes few resources to social sciences given their importance for the planning of social and economic development, which in turn is necessary for the alleviation of poverty.

I would think that a strong, multidisciplinary program in the social sciences would be justified per se, helping to promote international networking among social scietists and to build social science capacity in developing nations in support of their social and economic development. Such a program should be an important element in UNESCO's efforts to promote peace and dialog among civilizations, since the social sciences are creating and disseminating knowledge critical to these UNESCO efforts. I believe that there would be a natural complementarity between a strong social science program and UNESCO's programs in education, culture and the natural sciences, as well as the philosophy component of UNESCO's Social and Human Sciences program.

I suppose the lack of such a program is in part due to the relative weakness of the social sciences in 1945, when UNESCO was founded. It is not surprising that as UNESCO struggled with an expanding portfolio of responsibilities and a very tight budget, somethings were done "on the cheap". Perhaps also many nations did not want social science scrutiny of their cultures; governments might have resisted social science scrutiny of their operations. Still, without examination of the social, economic and cultural soundness of development policies, they too often fail. Only UNESCO would seem to have the charter to take a comprehensive approach to encouraging the development of holistic social science capacities in developing nations. Too bad it devotes so few resources to that task.

U.S. Losing Edge in Technological Innovation

A new report has been issued by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF). Titled "The Atlantic Century: Benchmarking EU and U.S. Innovation and Competiveness," the report features the use of 16 indicators in six key areas to assess the extent to which nations are able to compete on the basis of innovation:
  • human capital,
  • innovation capacity,
  • entrepreneurship,
  • IT infrastructure,
  • economic policy factors and
  • economic performance
Unlike several recent studies that find that the U.S. leads in innovation-based competitiveness, this report finds that while the U.S. still leads the EU, it ranks sixth overall, behind Singapore, the world leader. However, the report also assesses nations’ progress on the 16 indicators since the turn of the century. On this measure of progress the U.S. performance is much worse; in fact, the U.S. ranks 40th of the 40 nations and regions examined. The EU-15 region has improved faster than the U.S. (but considerably behind the leader, China) and as a result, ranks 28th among the 40 nations/regions in change. If the EU-15 region as a whole continues to improve at this faster rate than the United States, it would surpass the United States in innovation-based competitiveness by 2020.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ratio of Natural Science and Engineering Degrees to the College-Age Population

Source: "Reasons for International Changes in the Ratio of Natural Science and Engineering Degrees to the College-Age Population," Joan Burrelli and Alan Rapoport, NSF InfoBrief (NSF 09-308), National Science Foundation, January 2009.

There has been a growth in science and engineering first degrees in the United States, but a much more rapid recent growth in Asian nations. Of course it is hard to judge from such figures how good the training might be that is represented by those degrees. Moreover, the "stock" of engineering and science graduates accumulates over decades. The higher production per unit population during decades in the United States suggests that our stock of engineers and scientists may be large still. Of course engineers and scientists migrate to the United States and away from many nations, changing the relative stocks of engineers in both.

There may also be problems dealing with the effects of very rapidly building a stock of scientists and engineers, including lack of professionals to continue the on-the-job training of new graduates, and possible overcapacity for educational services once an adequate stock of young professionals has been accumulated.

Environment and Conflict

Scarce resources, such as water and fertile land,
contribute to the conflict in Darfur.

Intrastate conflicts are likely to drag on and escalate without a greater focus on environment and natural resources in the peace building process, according to a new report launched by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP):
From Conflict to Peacebuilding - The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment
Facts about disasters:
  • Since 2000, the world has witnessed over 35 major conflicts and some 2,500 disasters.
  • Since 1990, at least eighteen violent conflicts have been fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources.
  • Environmental degradation and climate change are major drivers in both forced and voluntary migration.
  • 40% of all intrastate conflicts since 1960 have a link to natural resources.
  • Intrastate conflicts linked to natural resources are twice as likely to relapse to conflict in five years.
  • Less than a quarter of peace negotiations aiming to resolve conflicts with links to natural resources have addressed resource management mechanisms.

"The Great Crash, 2008: A Geopolitical Setback for the West"

Source: Roger C. Altman, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2009.

Summary: The financial crisis has called into serious question the credibility of western governments and may precipitate an eastward shift of power.

ROGER C. ALTMAN is Chair and CEO of Evercore Partners. He was U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary in 1993-94.

This seems an excellent summary of the causes and likely repercussions of the current global economic crisis. I quote:
Conventional wisdom attributes the crisis to the collapse of housing prices and the subprime mortgage market in the United States. This is not correct; these were themselves the consequence of another problem. The crisis' underlying cause was the (invariably lethal) combination of very low interest rates and unprecedented levels of liquidity. The low interest rates reflected the U.S. government's overly accommodating monetary policy after 9/11. (The U.S. Federal Reserve lowered the federal funds rate to nearly one percent in late 2001 and maintained it near that very low level for three years.) The liquidity reflected, among other factors, what Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke has called "the global savings glut": the enormous financial surpluses realized by certain countries, particularly China, Singapore, and the oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf. Until the mid-1990s, most emerging economies ran balance-of-payments deficits as they imported capital to finance their growth. But the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, among other things, changed this in much of Asia. After that, surpluses grew throughout the region and then were consistently recycled back to the West in the form of portfolio investments.

Facing low yields, this mountain of liquidity naturally sought higher ones. One basic law of finance is that yields on loans are inversely proportional to credit quality: the stronger the borrower, the lower the yield, and vice versa. Huge amounts of capital thus flowed into the subprime mortgage sector and toward weak borrowers of all types in the United States, in Europe, and, to a lesser extent, around the world. For example, the annual volume of U.S. subprime and other securitized mortgages rose from a long-term average of approximately $100 billion to over $600 billion in 2005 and 2006. As with all financial bubbles, the lessons of history, including about long-term default rates on such poor credits, were ignored.
Comment: The article also indicates that the crisis will reduce the confidence in the free market ideology as advocated by Bush 43, and perhaps that advocated by several previous administrations in Anglo-Saxon nations. There have been competing economic ideologies. Those of Chavez in Venezuela, Putin in Rusia, Morales in Bolivia have looked good in times of high energy prices, but may suffer when their energy export income goes down. The economic ideology of the Chinese government may fair better in evolving global public opinion.

I am glad to see Obama discussing ways to cut the deficit in the long run even as he is increasing it in the short run. We need to balance immediate efforts to break the downward cycle, and long run efforts to deal with the underlying problems. JAD

"Crisis Prompts Calls to Boost IMF Reserves"

Source: Annys Shin, The Washington Post, February 24, 2009.

I quote extensively:
Since last fall, the IMF has lent more than $30 billion to Hungary, Belarus, Latvia, Serbia and Ukraine. All have been hurt by collapsing demand for exports; foreign investors who have pulled back sharply, partly to cover losses at home; and falling currency values. And some may be coming back for more.....

Additional countries are expected to turn to the IMF for help as the crisis deepens, raising concerns about the fund's adequacy.

IMF officials said there isn't reason to worry -- yet. At this stage, IMF officials said, doubling the fund's lending capacity, which stood at $250 billion before the crisis, to $500 billion is sufficient to ensure confidence in the adequacy of the Fund's resources.......

But several analysts doubted that that would be enough if the global downturn lasts well into 2010, as expected........

But coming up with additional money for the IMF poses challenges. Countries such as China and the oil-rich Gulf states, which have the resources to contribute, have been reluctant to do so because they have little decision-making power under rules that favor Europe and the United States, which set up the IMF in 1945.
Comment: This is another sign that there is going to be change in the international balance of economic power with China joining the ranks of the powerful and the United States losing some of the relative power it enjoyed in recent decades.

The report is also an indicator of the economic problems yet to come!

U.S. Foreign Assistance: Too little, too late!

Source of graph: The Economist

France, Germany and the United Kingdom together have a population of about 205 million compared to a population of 304 million in the United States. They have a combined GDP of $7.15 trillion compared to $14.58 trillion in the United States. Yet they provide $32 billion in foreign aid compared to $21.8 billion from the United States.

Notice that the United States is providing about half the percentage of its GDP as official development assistance as do these relatively large European nations, and less than one-quarter of the percentage provided by the Scandinavian countries and Holland.

There are explanatory factors. We spend more on the military than do other countries. We also provide tax breaks to our citizens who donate to charities, and thus provide tax financing to charitable organizations working in international development. Still, the United States could and should do more.

Incidentally, put the U.S. contribution in the context of the stimulus bill of the bailout of the financial industry and the inadequacy of $21 billion to the problem of world poverty is very clear. Moreover, that $21 billion in not directed to the places where it would help the most poor people, but is focused on support of our political objectives in places like Iraq, Israel and Egypt.

A really bad scenario -- which may be true

Source: "The Axis of Upheaval," Niall Ferguson, Foreign Policy, March/April 2009.

concluded, in The War of the World, that three factors made the location and timing of lethal organized violence more or less predictable in the last century. The first factor was ethnic disintegration: Violence was worst in areas of mounting ethnic tension. The second factor was economic volatility: The greater the magnitude of economic shocks, the more likely conflict was. And the third factor was empires in decline: When structures of imperial rule crumbled, battles for political power were most bloody.
Comment: The global recession is going to increase economic volatility. It is also going to decrease the resources available to rich countries to intervene abroad and change the focus of their political attention to domestic rather than foreign policy issues. We already have ethnic tension in abundance, but we may see more migration taking place which would be likely to exacerbate such tensions. Thus, Ferguson holds that there will be at least nine nations presenting serious danger of upheaval and violence.

Few things are more damaging to economic and social progress than upheaval and violence. Thus we may see an unfortunate negative spiral in countries that most need progress: worsening economic conditions and pull back of outside support allowing ethnic tensions to lead to violence, which in turn makes the economy even worse. JAD

'Many Clinical Trials Moving Overseas"

Source: Amanda Gardner, Health Day, U.S. News and World Report, February 18, 2009

A report that appears in the Feb. 19 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine reviewed 300 published reports in major medical journals.
A third (157 of 509) of Phase 3 trials -- typically the largest and most significant trial in the development of a drug -- led by major U.S. pharmaceutical companies were being conducted entirely outside the United States. In addition, half of the study sites (13,521 of 24,206) used in these trials were located overseas, with many in Eastern Europe and Asia.

At the same time, the researchers found, the number of FDA-regulated investigators running trials abroad has increased by 15 percent each year, while the number of U.S.-based investigators declined 5.5 percent annually.
Comment: The article goes on to point out that drugs proved effective in other populations may not be effective in U.S. populations, that sometimes the protection of human subjects is not what it should be in Asia and Eastern Europe, and that testing drugs in populations that will not be able to afford them if they prove safe and effective is itself unethical.

I had not realized that the shift was occurring so rapidly.

The current economic crisis is likely to devalue the dollar and make the U.S. more competitive for drug research as well as other economic activities. The development of a national health record system may also help make this country more attractive for drug testing.

On the other hand, we really need to contain health care costs in the United States and the strategy and tactics we need to use to do so may reduce the problem by reducing the incentives to develop new (me too) drugs for the U.S. market. JAD

Thoughts about expertise

Among those killed in the crash of Continental 3407 in Buffalo were:
  • Beverly Eckert, the widow of Sean Rooney, who was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Eckert was founder of Voices of September 11th, a victims advocacy group.
  • Alison Des Forges, 66, a human rights activist who documented the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
I did not recall ever hearing of either of these two remarkable women before they died. Discovering that two such remarkable women were included in the 49 people aboard the flight made me think about the remarkable richness of expertise in this country.

A knowledge society functions on expertise, but very few of the experts in our society are known to the general public. The fame goes to top politicians or corporate executives (who by necessity are generalists) and stars (of sports or entertainment). One of the problems we face as a society is being sure that authority in the sense of control goes to those who have authority in the sense of expertise. Another but lesser problem is to keep the best known people from appropriating too much income and wealth based on their fame. It does seem that the increasing inequality of income in this country reflects to some degree more income and wealth being appropriated by those with expertise as opposed to those without special expertise.

As to control, I note that in my days as a research engineer, I worked in organizations with "chief scientists" who worked with "managers". The manager would focus on administration, personnel, budget and similar issues; the chief scientist would focus on the substance of the research. Sharing control they achieved more than either alone could have achieved with unshared control of the organization.

In my days as a health planner, working at the regional level, I advised organizations that shared control among physicians, hospital administrators, public health officers and other experts. Clearly the optimal control of a modern hospital or of a network of health facilities requires more expertise than any one professional can master alone.

Modern research laboratories and hospitals are 20th century institutions. Older institutions generally have not evolved to share control among people with complementary expertise. Indeed, it seems to me that culture is conservative, and one of the aspects of culture that changes only slowly is the allocation of control within institutions within a culture.

Yet if we are to continue creating knowledge at increasing rates, and are to be able to utilize that knowledge most effectively to serve mankind, I think we will have to make institutional authority more based on expertise than on hierarchy.

A Thought on the Advice of Scientists

The New York Times today has an article which appears to be triggered by Roger Pielke Jr.'s book, The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. It deals with a tension among several realities:
  • Scientists when doing science should be very careful to report observations accurately and separate the observations from their interpretations, clearly labeling each.
  • Scientists are citizens and as such have a right to air their opinions publicly, and perhaps a responsibility to share the opinions on issues before the public when those opinions are based on expert knowledge.
  • Scientist administrators, like any administrators must find ways to utilize their knowledge in their jobs while recognizing that such knowledge is always tentative and inadequate and that it should be complemented with the knowledge of others.
  • Scientists when recruited as advisors are asked for their advice as people, and while that advice should be based on their scientific expertise is expected to draw upon the wider life experience of the scientist.
I think scientists should try to refuse to give advice when it is likely to be received as more authoritative than they understand it to be. That actually is hard. What do you do when you probably have better knowledge than will actually be used if you refuse to advise, but which is less adequate than that which could be obtained from other advisors?

I found the article to be unfortunate in that it sought to personify some of the issues with speculation about possible shortcomings of specific scientists who have joined the Obama administration. Give these guys a break! They may well do a great job! Moreover, they may have been very able to act in one ethical manner in the past as public citizens with scientific knowledge, and in a different ethical way in the future as government officials with scientific backgrounds.

Truth and Reconcilliation

Eric Holder, the Attorney General, raised a few eyebrows when he told the staff of the Department of Justice that the United States had not fully faced our racial problems. He did so in the context of Black History Month and it is obviously true that we have not dealt with the legacy of slavery and prejudice against African-Americans. I would guess that the history is equally or more disturbing with respect to Native-Americans and Native-Hawaiians, and not much better with respect to Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans. We also have a history of prejudice based on religion, ethnicity among European ethnic groups, gender and sexual orientation. Maybe we need as a nation to address prejudice in all its forms.

This blog focuses on knowledge for development and, if you think about it, prejudice is antithetical to knowledge. Prejudice keeps one from looking at reality and learning, substituting preformed opinions. It is hard to see how we can move towards a knowledge economy unless we move toward a knowledge society, and facing and removing prejudice is a waystation on that route.

Monday, February 23, 2009


Source: "Climate Fears Are Driving 'Ecomigration' Across Globe," Shankar Vedantam, The Washington Post, February 23, 2009.
There were about 25 million ecomigrants in the world a little more than a decade ago, said Norman Myers, a respected British environmental researcher at Oxford University. That number is now "a good deal higher," he added. "It's plain that sea-level rise in the wake of climate change will inundate the homelands of huge numbers of people."

In Bangladesh, about 12 million to 17 million people have fled their homes in recent decades because of environmental disasters -- and the low-lying country is likely to experience more intense flooding in the future. In several countries in Africa's Sahel region, bordering the Sahara, about 10 million people have been driven to move by droughts and famines.

In the Philippines, upwards of 4 million people have moved from lowlands to highlands as a result of deforestation. And in an earlier era, about 2.5 million Americans became ecomigrants after droughts and land degradation during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.
Comment: We need more information for the public like this. I like most people have difficulty understanding short term climate change much less the impact of the climate change that will probably take place during this century. It is especially hard to get relatively affluent people who will not survive the first half of the century to worry about problems that will affect most critically the poor in poor nations in the second half of the century. Yet unless we who are responsible for greenhouse gas release do something now, the impacts then will not be ameliorated. JAD

Joseph Stiglitz on the Economic Crisis

Nobel Economics Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz has an interesting interview on Truthout. Noting that we live in a very different economy than the one that led to the Great Depression, but that the situation is very serious.

I quote a couple of Q&As:
The Institute of International Finance estimates that the private flow of capital to developing countries will shrink by about two-thirds. Are we facing a situation where we could see a total collapse of many developing countries?

I think many governments of emerging nations actually have a much better central banking system than the United States. They realized the risks of excessive leverage, excessive dependance on real estate lending and so they took much more prudent actions. Many developing countries also built up large reserves and are in a better position to meet this crisis than they were a decade ago.

But some will face very difficult times, potentially defaults. Some of these countries are suffering from having paid too much attention to what has gone on in the United States.

In her speech at the World Economic Forum, German Chancellor Merkel warned the U.S. of protectionism and criticized subsidies for American auto companies. Is she correct? Do you see a danger that the U.S. will resort to protectionist measures?

Yes, very clearly. We have always been aware that protectionism takes two forms: Tariffs and subsidies. Subsidies distort the playing field just like tariffs do. Subsidies are even more unfair and even more distorting, because while developed countries can give subsidies, poor countries can't afford to do so. Rich countries are distorting the level playing field by giving huge subsidies, not necessarily in the intention of protection, but with the consequence of protection.
Comment: Stiglitz suggests that many developing countries are well positioned to deal with this crisis, but that some are going to fall victim to it, and calls for assistance to those countries from the rich. That seems a very likely situation to me, and I agree with his call for assistance to those caught in the global recession where that assistance can be directed to helping the most vulnerable.

I think that Chancellor Merkel is right that globalization of financial industries calls for some kind of intergovernmental regulatory apparatus. JAD

Sunday, February 22, 2009

How Important Are Engineers in Development?

I find few people seem to understand how important it is to have enough engineers in a developing nation. Just think about it:

Engineers design and manage the construction and maintenance of the transportation infrastructure: roads, railroads, ports and airports, not to mention pipelines.

Engineers are also responsible for the potable water and sewerage systems, including the urban systems for disposing of rain runoff.

They design and manage the electrical infrastructure including power plants.

They are responsible for the dams and irrigation systems.

They play a key role in the construction industry.

Electrical, mechanical and chemical engineers as well as industrial engineers are critical to the development of any advanced manufacturing industry.

Mining engineers manage the extraction of mineral resources, joined by petroleum engineers and hydrolics engineers in providing access to underground resources.

Engineers develop the telecommunications infrastructure, and they build the transmission towers for radio and television broadcasting.

A couple of years ago I was told that Uganda, a country with some 25 million inhabitants, had only 500 professional engineers. Is it to wonder that Uganda's ports are decrepit, most of its railroads no longer function, its electrical system provides too little electricity and has frequent blackouts, and its manufacturing industry is to use a euphemism, "challenged".

One problem faced by developing nations with weak engineering professions is how much of the limited engineering manpower should be invested in training the new generation of engineers. Another -- discouraging -- problem is how to assure that the nation utilizes all of the available engineers effectively to build and maintain the engineered infrastructure. And of course, a nation must find a way to keep the engineers it trains, which involves paying them a living wage and providing them with professionally rewarding work.

A thought about human capital.

The Emancipation Proclamation of Lincoln during the Civil War had a strong economic motivation, as did the freeing of American slaves by the British during the Revolutionary war. This is clear because slaves were not freed in areas under control of the United States government, but only in the territories of the Confederate States. It was the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that actually enshrined the abolition of slavery nationwide.

I have read that an impact of the abolition of slavery was to sweep away most of the capital of the southern states. That is obviously wrong. What it did was to transfer the ownership of human capital from slave owners to newly freed slaves. The white slave owners lost what had been their property under slavery, but the human capital did not disappear.

Thinking about it, slavery gave monetary value to the human capital represented by the slaves. Indeed, slaves with useful skills were valued more highly than unskilled slaves.

Development economists have recognized human capital, and that investment in education and health services have been justified as investments in human capital. So too, the courts are willing to ascribe a value to human life in tort cases, focusing on the lost earnings due to death or disability. Indeed, we can consider there to be a moral hazard in life insurance that exceeds in face value the expected lifetime earnings of the insured.

Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist, has contributed greatly to development economics by pointing out that in developing countries property rights are often informal, and that lack of formal systems for vesting property rights in people's homes and property results in grave limitations in the abilities of people to utilize the capital embodied in that "informal" property. Giving people title to their land and homes allows them to borrow against that property; if they can use the loans to earn more than the interest that they have to pay, then that can be economically liberating.

So too, efforts to improve land registration in developing nations can be seen as creating the institutions which monetarize the capital embodied in the land held by poor rural people. Once there is title to the land it can be transferred, and thus it can be borrowed against.

Recall too that we have institutionalized mortgage insurance to protect lenders against the risk of failure to repay loans, and life and disability insurance to protect families against loosing mortgaged property due to disability or death.

We in this country allow people to borrow on human capital in some circumstances. In some cases we allow people unsecured loans based on earnings records and potential. We have student loans to allow people to invest in education, thereby increasing their own human capital. Indeed, one might think of the microfinance movement as based on institutionalizing means by which poor people can borrow against their own human capital (or by which groups of poor people can borrow against their combined human capital).

I wonder whether we have gone far enough in the process of accounting for human capital. It is clearly difficult to measure. In the past economists have estimated the current value of future earnings, and have measured the value of educational services by the increased present value of the future earnings stream due to added education. The problem with this approach is that there are external benefits to education -- not all the benefits to society are captured by the earnings of the educated. In developing nations, the social benefits of having some engineers and public health physicians can be much greater than their lifetime earnings.

Still, it seems useful to use the increase in a nation's capital as an indicator of development, and it would be useful to include not only the value of physical capital in that measure but also of human capital.

I leave working out the means of doing so to economists.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Science, Culture and Development

Last night in my seminar on UNESCO a student asked about the relationship between natural science and culture. There is a culture of science, and science seems to thrive in some cultures and not in others, but I think she was asking specifically about the impact of science on culture. Let me make a few suggestions in that direction.

I think an important aspect of culture is the body of things which people sharing a culture believe to be true. Science changes that body of "knowledge". A culture is different when people come to believe malaria is caused by a pathogenic microorganism and not be bad air, or when people know how much water is in the aquifer under them and how rapidly it is recharged. These are examples of useful scientific knowledge, which has a relatively obvious impact on the ways in which people in a culture behave.

I think that scientific knowledge may also have an impact on culture even when it is not immediately useful. Think about the impact of astronomy on Christian cultures. Copernicus and Galileo showed that the planets moved around the sun, that there were moons moving around some planets, and that the moon showed impact craters so that celestial bodies were not perfect and changeless. The scientific knowledge challenged the idea of perfect celestial spheres circling the earth, and led people to question whether the heavens of the afterlife was in the celestial heaven, and if not where.

The scientific understanding that the earth was billions of years old, and that evolution had formed species over hundreds of millions of years similarly challenged Christian beliefs that the earth had been created a few thousand years ago, and that there was a great chain of being of unchanging species created at the creation of the world. In the United States these scientific findings are still seen as threatening to a significant portion of the population, no doubt because they imply larger changes in the beliefs embedded in the culturt.

If natural science is increasingly seen as the preferred source of information about the natural world, that has cultural implications. Scientific epistemology becomes more important, replacing other ways of knowing found in the culture. Think of the way that science has replaced religion as a means of obtaining knowledge about the natural world in Western culture. If people go to scientific institutions rather than traditional institutions for information about the natural world, that change affects the authority of the traditional institutions, not only in the sense of their credibility as sources of certain kinds of information but also (often) in terms of authoritarian power.

I would suggest that there are even more fundamental cultural impacts of science. Positivism is a philosophical system based on the tenet that knowledge should be based on observation, and especially on scientific observation. According to Wikipedia:
The positivist view is sometimes referred to as a scientistic ideology, and is often shared by technocrats who believe in the necessity of progress through scientific progress, and by naturalists, who argue that any method for gaining knowledge should be limited to natural, physical, and material approaches. In psychology, a positivistic approach is favored by behaviorism.
Philosophical positivism clearly grows in importance within a culture as science becomes more fully accepted in that culture as a way of knowing. I would suggest that as a culture changes to be more accepting of science as a source of knowledge, that culture is also likely to become more accepting of behaviorism as a way of understanding psychology, of technocratic approaches to problem solving, and indeed of the concept of progress.

To illustrate the point, check out this poster:

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Odd coincidences

According to Wikipedia, Barack Obama was born August 4, 1961. According to Wikipedia, his Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geitner, was born on August 18, 1961.

After obtaining her PhD in Anthropology Obama's mother, Sydney Ann Dunham returned to Indonesia where she
pursued a career in rural development championing women’s work and microcredit for the world’s poor, with Indonesia’s oldest bank, the United States Agency for International Development, the Ford Foundation, Women's World Banking, and as a consultant in Pakistan.
Geithner's father,
Peter F. Geithner, is the director of the Asia program at the Ford Foundation in New York. During the early 1980s, Peter Geithner oversaw the Ford Foundation's microfinance programs in Indonesia being developed by Ann Dunham-Soetoro, Obama's mother, and they met in person at least once.
Conclusion: This ought to be a good administration for those interested in microfinance!

Quotations, including a new one

La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier √† des militaires.
(War! That is something too serious to trust to military men.)
Georges Clemenceau

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.
John Maynard Keynes

The Economy! That is too important to trust to practical men. Lets make sure it is in the hands of the best living economist we can find.
John Daly


Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
Albert Einstein, (attributed)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Economic Downturn

News that Japan's economy shrank at an annual rate of 12.7 percent in the last three months of the year and that Germany's economy contracted 2.1 percent capped a dismal year for the global economy.

Comment: There were three relatively good quarters last year, so the year long data shown in the graph above does not really capture the pain we are experiencing in this quarter. From what I can read, the stimulus packages are not likely to have much effect in the next quarter either. Bumpy road ahead!

Frontline has a show titled "Inside the Meltdown" tracking the history of the economic meltdown of last year, which we are still experiencing. Good program. I note some things which I took together:
  • Henry Paulson, Bush's final Secretary of the Treasury, is described as having been very angry at Dick Fuld, the CEO of Lehman Brothers, as the firm went into crisis last Fall. Apparently Paulson had warned Fuld that the firm was in trouble and that he should sell the firm, advice that had not been followed.
  • When the firm went into crisis comparable to that which had resulted in the Bail out of Bear Stearns, Paulson weighed the options of a bailout or letting the firm go into bankruptcy.
  • He was worried about Moral Hazard if there was a bailout and about instability of the financial system if the firm went into bankruptcy.
  • Paulson is not an economist. After an early career in politics (including a stint as assistant to John Ehrlichman from 1972 to 1973, during the events of the Watergate scandal for which Ehrlichman was convicted, and sentenced to prison) he joined and rose to the position of CEO of Goldman Sachs. He was both a conservative Republican and a strong believer in free markets and a limited role of government in banking.
  • Paulson concluded that the risk of moral hazard was worse than that of destabilization of the financial system.
  • Not only did he lead in the government's decision to let Lehman Brothers go into bankruptcy, but he intervened personally to keep the price at which Lehman Brothers shares were liquidated in the final sale of the firm at the very low value of $2 per share.
  • He was wrong about the danger of destabilization, and the bankruptcy led to a contagion which is still rippling through the financial system and the world economy.
That sounds like a very bad mistake was made by the lead man of the Bush (43) administration, perhaps based on emotion, lack of in-depth economic understanding, arrogance, and commitment to conservative economic ideology. Arghhh!! JAD

The Condorcet Jury Theorem

"If each member of a jury is more likely to be right than wrong, then the majority of the jury, too, is more likely to be right than wrong; and the probability that the right outcome is supported by a majority of the jury is a (swiftly) increasing function of the size of the jury, converging to 1 as the size of the jury tends to infinity."
Nicolas de Condorcet, 1785.
Quoted in "Epistemic Democracy: Generalizing the Condorcet Jury Theorem" by Christian List

A New Internet?

Source: "Do We Need a New Internet?" JOHN MARKOFF, The New York Times February 14, 2009.

"Despite a thriving global computer security industry that is projected to reach $79 billion in revenues next year, and the fact that in 2002 Microsoft itself began an intense corporatewide effort to improve the security of its software, Internet security has continued to deteriorate globally......

"(T)here is a growing belief among engineers and security experts that Internet security and privacy have become so maddeningly elusive that the only way to fix the problem is to start over.

"What a new Internet might look like is still widely debated, but one alternative would, in effect, create a “gated community” where users would give up their anonymity and certain freedoms in return for safety. Today that is already the case for many corporate and government Internet users. As a new and more secure network becomes widely adopted, the current Internet might end up as the bad neighborhood of cyberspace. You would enter at your own risk and keep an eye over your shoulder while you were there."

Comment: The one thing I have learned for sure since I first learned to program a computer more than 50 years ago is that I am usually surprised by what happens in the Information Revolution.

I find it hard to imagine life without the Internet I have grown to treat as part of my life and as a fundamental part of the "surround" with which I amplify my thinking.

My failure of imagination does not prevent unforeseen changes from taking place. That has already happened from the trailblazing growth of the computer game industry, to the magnitude of online pornography and gambling, to the change in the world due to the impact of the Internet in making new services "tradable".

The Middle Class is Here, Hopefully to Stay

The current issue of The Economist magazine has a Special Report on the middle class. It points out that, for the first time in human history, the majority of people in the world are in the middle (economic) class. That represents a level of wealth and comfort that would have been unimaginable for most people for almost all of recorded history.
In 1966 Barrington Moore, an American historian, pithily summarised decades of scholarly opinion in his formula, “no bourgeoisie, no democracy”.
The focus of the Special Report is speculation on the economic impact of the growth of the middle class, and of course on the implications of the current economic crisis in a world with a majority of people in the middle class.

One section of the Special Report refers to a multinational survey o middle class attitudes supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The study finds that in 13 middle-income nations from regions around the globe, people tend to hold different opinions about democracy and social issues once they reach a certain level of wealth. Compared with poorer people in emerging countries, members of the middle class assign more importance to democratic institutions and individual liberties, consider religion less central to their lives, hold more liberal social values, and express more concern about the environment.
I was especially taken by this result from the Pew studies:
Nearly everywhere, wealthy people tend to be more satisfied with their lives. Life satisfaction tends to be higher in wealthy countries; and in developing countries, it tends to be higher among wealthy people.4 So it is not too surprising that members of the global middle class tend to be more satisfied with their lives.
Comment: So we have an economic crisis which is likely to hit the emerging middle class hard. This class now is large, and it seeks the political power to make its needs and demands felt in government. That seems likely to spell political problems for the world at large! JAD

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The African Science to Business Challenge

The United Nations Economic Commission (UNECA) for Africa and Research Triangle Institute (RTI) are holding a competition, the winner of which will be granted travel to RTI to get their inputs on how to commercialize his/her research-based technology.
The 2009 inaugural Challenge focuses on two categories: biomedical engineering, which integrates physical, chemical, mathematical, and computational sciences and engineering principles for the study of biology, medicine, behavior and health; and water quality, which is central to the human rights and personal dignity of every person.
Read about the initiative:

Exposed countries; those in the central shaded area are most exposed to poverty risks

Source: The World Bank

Sharply lower economic growth rates will significantly retard progress in reducing infant mortality. Preliminary estimates for 2009 to 2015 forecast that an average 200,000 to 400,000 more children a year, a total of 1.4 to 2.8 million, may die if the crisis persists.

New estimates for 2009 suggest that lower economic growth rates will trap 46 million more people on less than $1.25 a day than was expected prior to the crisis. An extra 53 million will stay trapped on less than $2 a day. This is on top of the 130-155 million people pushed into poverty in 2008 because of soaring food and fuel prices.

Comment: In this time when we are worried about people in our own country, there is a moral imperative to recognize the plight of those in poor nations is worse and deteriorating. JAD

Social Modelling

Yesterday Shankar Vedantam, the great science reporter for the Washington Post, had an article on the applications of computer modeling and analysis to social and economic problems. The article began with a timely piece on an analysis by Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute that suggests that specific changes in the regulatory framework for the stock market made by the Bush administration resulted in more instability in the financial systems, which in turn allowed the bursting of the housing bubble and the sub-prime mortgage crisis to trigger much wider economic problems.

Vedantum properly cautions against putting too much credence in the results of such models. However, they can be very useful. Often systems with complex feedback loops can behave in ways that are quite unintuitive, and a model which explores the effect of changes in a simplified version can help understand that behavior of the larger system.

What really caught my attention was his discussion of some of the results of V. S. Subrahmanian at the University of Maryland.
At the University of Maryland, for example, computer scientist V.S. Subrahmanian and political scientist Jonathan Wilkenfeld have built a computational model to predict how different situations amplify the likelihood of violence in the Middle East. One conclusion of their model is that the militant group Hezbollah is more likely to lob rockets into Israel when elections are being held in Lebanon -- some proportion of the attacks are meant to impress a domestic audience. The conclusion is not necessarily counterintuitive: A skilled political watcher could have told you the same thing. But if pundits intuitively know how 100 different issues might influence outcomes, computational models can tell you the relative importance of each variable.

Another model by the Maryland group shows that infant mortality levels predict the likelihood of political instability in a country better than any other single measure. Again, this is not a shocker. Anyone can guess that countries with poor public health are on less secure footing. What the model does is tell us to pay preferential attention to infant mortality over, say, hunger or poverty or religious strife.
Both of these results may help develop intuition. I would caution, however, that "correlation is not causality". It may well be that some combination of conditions -- ignorance, poverty, the growth of urban slums -- result in both more political instability and higher reported infant mortality. It can also be that a model assuming one set of causal relationships results in behavior of the output variables of the model system that closely parallel the observed behavior of the real system even if the causal relationships in the real system are different. That may be an important problem if one seeks to change the behavior of society based innovations that worked in the model, but depend on unrealistic causal assumptions.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Perhaps They Should Have Read History

Thomas Ricks has been making the rounds of talk shows with his new book, The Gamble. I have heard him make the point that a survey of people being held in Iraq for anti-American activities frequently reported when asked that they did so for the money; that was the rationale for paying tribal groups to join the American side rather than fight as insurgents.

He also said that part of the change in tactics was for the American military not to fight for territory that they would not hold if won.

It seems to me that the ancient Persians, the Byzantines and many others were experts at splitting their enemies by making payments to one group to join in fighting against the other. History is full of people who came to grief conquering and reconquering people and territory that they could not hold.

Am I missing something?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A thought about evolution

How does an insect evolve
a society
to build this ant hill?

An article in Science magazine describes a scientific debate going on, associated with Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, as to how eusociality evolved. The article states that
three forces were at work in shaping an insect society: group, individual, and "collateral" kin selection (involving relatives other than offspring). Group selection occurs when one cooperating hive or nest out-competes another one; individual selection involves the survival and reproductive output of a particular ant, wasp, or bee; and kin selection has an impact when relatives other than offspring help spread shared genes.
Comment: I am certainly not competent to enter into a debate with two of the world's greatest experts on insect societies, but I would express my enthusiasm for the intellectual leap that their argument represents.

People can now construct computer programs not only to simulate each of these evolutionary processes, but also to simulate processes that combine them in different proportions. Indeed, as computer power increases it should be possible to utilize such programs in practical applications.

It occurs to me that with three different forms of evolution that probably occur in these species it is likely to be very difficult to understand in retrospect how important was each at each stage of their evolution. That something is difficult to understand ex post facto does not mean that the theories of how it may have occurred are wrong, nor that they are not useful. JAD


I am glad to see that there is going to be a reinvigorated effort to eradicate polio, which is now found in only four countries of the world with a total annual incidence of less than 2000 cases. It is a terrible disease and the eradication is a tiny part of that which will be necessary on a yearly basis if the disease returns to being a global scourge. Remember that when it became clear that WHO's campaign to eradicate malaria would fail, efforts to control the disease were so poorly conducted that for decades we have seen a million deaths from malaria per year.

Assuming we will be successful in the eradication of polio, the world will still need a means of assuring it is gone, and preventing any recurrence. An article in Science magazine makes me think that we probably need a new vaccine for polio. A lot has been learned since polio vaccines were introduced a couple of generations ago, and a better vaccine might well be possible now.

Good News from the Holdren Nomination Hearing

The Science blog, covering the confirmation hearing of the President's Science Advisor designate states:
Holdren.....announced his intention to fill the four associate director posts that existed during the Clinton Administration before his predecessor, John Marburger, eliminated positions covering the environment, and national security, and international affairs. He also promised to "reinvigorate" the National Science and Technology Council, an interagency coordinating body that he said has "languished" under the Bush Administration.
Comment: I am very pleased that the international post will be reinvigorated. I also am glad that the National Science and Technology Council is to be strengthened; the president needs the advice of a strong and active advisory panel. JAD

GLOBAL HEALTH: Some Neglected Diseases Are More Neglected Than Others

SOURCES: MORAN ET AL., PLoS MEDICINE; THE GLOBAL BURDEN OF DISEASE: 2004 UPDATE (WHO) via Martin Enserink, Science, 6 February 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5915, p. 700.

Comment: The PAHO-CENDES health planning method added a criterion, "transcendence", to their proceedure for assigning priority to health problems. It recognized that people simply want some diseases fought more than they care about others. Polio never was as severe an illness in terms of death and disability as some others of its time, but it was very visible and people wanted it solved with urgency. HIV/AIDS shared this transcendence when it surfaced as a new and deadly plague.

The graph indicates that pneumonia and diarrheal diseases receive less research funding than their menace would demand. That is probably true.

I would suggest that DALYs are not as exact a measure of human cost as one might think. More importantly, the allocation of research funds should be a function not only of the importance of the health problem, but also of the per-dollar impact research is likely to have on ameliorating that problem. Some diseases are more expensive to fight than are others; some research areas lack adequate research infrastructure to usefully absorb large amounts of additional funding quickly.

Still, those of us who have walked the pediatrics wards of poor countries and seen kids suffering and dying from the triple threat of respiratory disease, diarrheal disease and malnutrition want more to be done about these diseases now!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Source: "First Information: S&T Funding Provisions of the Economic Stimulus Bill" by Richard M. Jones, The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News, American Institute of Physics, Number 15, February 12, 2009.

The Economic Stimulus Law apparently contains the following funding for science and technology (More than $15 Billion):
$3 billion for the National Science Foundation, for basic research in fundamental science and engineering.

$1.6 billion for the Department of Energy's Office of Science, which funds research in such areas as climate science, biofuels, high-energy physics, nuclear physics and fusion energy sciences.

$400 million for the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to support high-risk, high-payoff research into energy sources and energy efficiency in collaboration with industry.

$580 million for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, including the Technology Innovation Program and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

$8.5 billion for NIH, including expanding good jobs in biomedical research to study diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cancer, and heart disease.

$1 billion for NASA, including $400 million to put more scientists to work doing climate change research.

$1.5 billion for NIH to renovate university research facilities and help them compete for biomedical research grants.”
A separate section of the Law entitled “Clean, Efficient, American Energy” includes:
“Provides a total of $30 billion for such initiatives as a new, smart power grid, advanced battery technology, and energy efficiency measures, which will create nearly 500,000 jobs.

“Transforms the nation’s electricity systems through the Smart Grid Investment Program to modernize the electricity grid to make it more efficient and reliable.

“Supports U.S. development of advanced vehicle batteries and battery systems through loans and grants so that America can lead the world in transforming the way automobiles are powered.

“Helps state and local governments make investments in innovative best practices to achieve greater energy efficiency and reduce energy usage.

“Spurs energy efficiency and renewable energy R&D.”
Comment: I am not sure how many of these components will provide short term stimulation for the economy, but they seem useful in the long term development of the country. JAD

Friday, February 13, 2009

UNESCO Seminar

Some times ago I posted on a graduate course I am helping to coordinate for George Washington University: UNESCO: Agenda for the 21st Century. I was asked to post updates on the course. I posted a couple of times on this blog in response to that request:
I have been posting more on that course on the blog: UNESCO in The Spotlight: Education and Culture:
I will continue posting on the seminar on that blog and on the blog: UNESCO in the Spotlight: Science and Communications.

Diplomacy, Science and Technology

I believe that science and technology have a more important role in diplomacy that is usually recognized. In part my views come from my knowledge of U.S. foreign policy initiatives using scientific and technological cooperation as a tool of diplomacy. Thus the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program sought to build peaceful linkages between Israel and its Arab neighbors by funding collaborative research projects involving Israeli and Arab scientists. The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis was created cooperatively by the Soviet Union and the United States as a Cold War initiative, building confidence by cooperating in an research and analytic field in which both countries were strong. For decades the National Academy of Sciences held joint activities with counterpart Academies in the Soviet Union and its client states, again to build linkages of understanding and to diffuse Cold War tensions.

I am not addressing scientific and technological advice within the governmental agencies involved in foreign policy. That scientific and technological advice is rendered to the Secretary of State or the Administrator of the foreign assistance program by the Science Adviser to the Secretary of State and her staff, to the president by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, by similar offices in other agencies of the government, and by a variety of scientific advisory panels focusing on specific programs and sectors. That advice is vitally important and too often undervalued and underutilized,, but here I am addressing the use of science and technology as an instrument of foreign policy. Perhaps I will return to S&T advice for foreign policy in some future posting

Objectives of Diplomacy

The United States Government stresses national security and economics in its foreign policy. It also carries out programs of development assistance and disaster relief in support of humanitarian objectives.

There are also other foreign policy efforts to deal with problems that can not be solved working solely within the country's border. I tend to think of these as "global systems problems". Climate change is an obvious example. So too is the control of infectious diseases. (The regular annual flu epidemic, which starts in Asia and sweeps across the world kills ten times as many Americans each year as Al Qaeda did on 9/11. A flu pandemic is much more dangerous. Yet we spend relatively little protecting against the import of the flu.)

Long Term versus Short Term Diplomatic Objectives

In foreign policy, as in other areas, there are problems that require urgent response and others where responses are less urgently required. So too there are problems that can not be solved quickly, but require extended attention. Indeed, there are urgent problems that require immediate attention, but that also will require long term efforts.

Foreign policy problems also range in potential impact and in the magnitude of the effort required for their resolution.

Climate change is an example of a problem that has very great potential impact increasing over the 21st century, that will require very long term diplomatic efforts. For that very reason, it is an urgent problem, since the longer we delay effective action, the worse the potential impact, and the more draconian the necessary steps for its solution. Climate change is of course a problem which is has been identified and clarified by science, and science is clarifying the nature of the remedial actions that will be needed.

I would point out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a very interesting example of scientific diplomacy. It was clearly a scientific initiative, involving thousands of scientists all over the world, and using strict criteria to clarify the conclusions that could legitimately be drawn from the body of scientific research that bears on climate change, its causes and its effects. By establishing this intergovenmental panel, governments first could establish an intention of collaboration on climate change, and could establish a body of agreed information on which to base negotiations.

Military Technology

I suppose that because of the heavy expenditure that the United States Government makes on military research and development, and the consequent superiority of the high military technology the country has developed, that technology is an important element in both our security and our economic foreign policy. I don't know much about the area, but it seems obvious that we share lots of military technology with our allies and deny even dual use technology to others. It also seems obvious that as the world's leading exporter of military technology, we sell military technology for economic purposes (amortize the R&D via sales of goods and services).

It is perhaps less well understood that the military plays other scientific and technological roles in foreign policy. Again, I am not an expert, but consider that the Corps of Engineers provides engineering expertise to other nations, the military medical services conduct biomedical research on tropical diseases and other medical problems worldwide, and military remote sensing technology plays a role in disaster assistance worldwide. These services, in addition to their nominal purposes, build good will and thus contribute to American security.

Technology in the Business Sector

The multinational corporation has become, obviously, the prime mover in the globalizing economy. In the absence of inhibiting regulation, it transfers technologies wherever management feels that they will be most profitable. Technologically and economically strong nations can utilize their regulatory powers to modify the flow of technology through corporate mechanisms in order to achieve security and other diplomatic objectives.

More commonly, nations engage in diplomatic offensives to attract corporations to their own shores in order to achieve economic objectives. Note too, that there are many dual use technologies, and attracting firms interested in their commercial application also results in their availability for other applications.

Increasingly, however, as corporations seek to exercise social responsibility in visible and effective ways, they enter into partnerships with non-governmental organizations, governments and intergovernmental organizations to jointly advance humanitarian objectives. In these efforts, the corporations are especially likely to apply and transfer their technology or technological expertise.

Technology in the Governmental Sector

Government as a service industry has been revolutionized by advances in information and communications technology. U.S. governments at the federal, state and local levels have often been leaders in that revolution, and as such have had an opportunity to gain diplomatic advantage by sharing the knowledge and technology. So to, the transfer of ICT for government has played a role in our development assistance policies. Comparably, infrastructure is often developed and managed by government. As was mentioned above, the Corps of Engineers provides engineering services and technologies abroad, achieving foreign policy as well as nominal objectives.

Standards and intellectual property rights are areas of intensive intergovernmental negotiations that are intrinsically technological in purpose. So to there is a wide range of technological issues in relations among nations, from the guarantees of quality of products involved in international trade, to international public health cooperation, to international efforts to prevent the spread of agricultural pests and diseases. The negotiations of treaties dealing with oceanographic concernes, fisheries, and biodiversity similarly are deeply connected with scientific and technological issues.

Science and Technology in Foreign Assistance

I have spent most of my career seeking ways to utilize science and technology to realize the humanitarian purposes of U.S. foreign policy. The Green Revolution created by the dissemination of high yielding varieties of grains to developing countries was made possible by agricultural research, and was led by the International Agricultural Research Centers and support for agricultural extension systems. The eradication of smallpox was made possible by strong epidemiological support for national strategies as well as by the development of better vaccines, cold chains, and management techniques. However, there has been a lack of support for science and technology in foreign assistance, at least in the United States government.

That is unfortunate. Scientific and technological cooperation could be an efficient means to advance our humanitarian goals. The U.S. scientific and technological capacity is much admired worldwide, and collaborative efforts in science and technology can not only advance our humanitarian goals, but also build good will and advance our goals in public diplomacy. The scientific viewpoint can help to combat more ideological thinking in recipient countries, thinking which is sometimes inimical to our interests. Foreign technological policy leaders who work with Americans learn how and why we do things, and are more likely to become allies in international standards and similar fora. Finally, scientific and technological cooperation helps acquaint people in other countries with American technology helping to build markets for our exports.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Thoughts on February 12

Today is Lincoln's 200th birthday and exactly 100 years since the creation of the NAACP. It is more than 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Ammendment (I note that slaves were emancipated in Maryland, where I live, not by the Emancipation Proclamation but by a subsequent state constitution that went into effect in November 1964.)

Last year the majority of the white voters in the former slave states of the Confederacy voted against Barack Obama. Perhaps owning slaves reduced their intelligence. Perhaps Lamarck was right and acquired foolishness is passed down from one generation to the next.

Today is also Charles Darwin's birthday and it is 150 years from the publication of The Origin of Species. Today only 51 percent of American adults believe in evolution.

World Population Distribution by Region, 1800–2050
Source: United Nations Population Division via Population Reference Bureau

The graph above shows that the world's human population is becoming more black and brown and less white. How do people who do not believe in evolution explain that fact?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Thoughts about the stimulus package

I am no expert, but maybe someone would be interested in my thoughts about the current legislation.

The stimulus package is intended to be an economic stimulus. Econometric models should be available to predict the impact on the GDP of the overall package and each component.

Of course, we don't want to have a stimulus package that just makes rich people richer, but leaves lots of unemployment and partial employment, which leaves the poor no better off, which simply exacerbates economic disparities. Distribution of benefits counts.

Putting people to work, job creation, seems to me to be better than tax reductions. Assuming that both are financed by increasing government debt, both will put more money in circulation and thus stimulate the economy. However, projects that create employment also produce things that will increase productivity in the future, if the focus is on public works. Similarly, it seems better to me to put money into retraining people whose jobs have been lost to changes in our economic structure rather than just unemployment insurance.

Don't put employment generation projects into fields that depend heavily on imported inputs, whether they be steel or electronics; they would seem to me more likely to stimulate the economies of other countries than would projects that depend on non-tradable services. Fixing roads and schools therefore seem like good projects.

Putting money into science seems a bad idea to me for a stimulus package. Science does not pay off quickly. Scientists are largely employed already, and a rapid increase in science funding is likely to result in inflation of the costs of doing science. Moreover, if the science funding is not maintained in the future much of the benefit would be lost.

Similarly putting money into the creation of employment of illegal immigrants doesn't seem like a good idea to me. We could find that the stimulus package attracts more illegal workers, exacerbating the immigration problems, without reducing the poverty impact of the crisis on U.S. workers. A lot of the construction industry seems to be manned by immigrants.

It seems to me that we are between a rock and a hard place. The United States has spent too much, gone into too much debt, and saved too little, getting us into this problem. The stimulus package is based on increasing debt to increase spending. That seems justified for the short term, but destructive for the long term. So the key seems to me to postpone the pain of changing our habits for no longer than is necessary to break the downward spiral, but not to put it off too long. Ulimately we are going to have to save more, invest more, and consume less of our GDP.

Monday, February 09, 2009

"Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits"

Philip Bell, Bruce Lewenstein, Andrew W. Shouse, and Michael A. Feder, Editors, Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments, National Research Council, 2009.

Informal science is a burgeoning field that operates across a broad range of venues and envisages learning outcomes for individuals, schools, families, and society. The evidence base that describes informal science, its promise, and effects is informed by a range of disciplines and perspectives, including field-based research, visitor studies, and psychological and anthropological studies of learning.

Learning Science in Informal Environments draws together disparate literatures, synthesizes the state of knowledge, and articulates a common framework for the next generation of research on learning science in informal environments across a life span. Contributors include recognized experts in a range of disciplines--research and evaluation, exhibit designers, program developers, and educators. They also have experience in a range of settings--museums, after-school programs, science and technology centers, media enterprises, aquariums, zoos, state parks, and botanical gardens.

Learning Science in Informal Environments is an invaluable guide for program and exhibit designers, evaluators, staff of science-rich informal learning institutions and community-based organizations, scientists interested in educational outreach, federal science agency education staff, and K-12 science educators.
Comment: Science changes so fast that science education in the best of cases should be continuing education. For those in developing countries, who generally learn little science in school, learning science out of school is a necessity.

It would be interesting to see a counterpart to this study that focuses on the ways poor people in poor countries learn about the physical and social worlds that they inhabit. I suspect that the pace of science learning should increase to meet a more rapidly changing social world, and that the old institutions should bend a lot. JAD

"RESEARCH FUNDING: European Science Not As Intense As Hoped"


Daniel Clery in last week's Science magazine wrote that Europes
"R&D intensity" (research spending as a percentage of gross domestic product) pretty much stuck at about 1.84%--a long way from the E.U.'s self-imposed goal of reaching an R&D intensity of 3% by 2010.

'Foreign Policy Beyond the Pentagon"

Source: Walter Pincus, The Washington Post, February 9, 2009.

I quote:
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believes that the United States' foreign policy has become "too militarized."

But Mullen said in a speech last week that it could take 10 years or more before government departments other than Defense, such as State, Commerce, Treasury and Agriculture, are prepared to send employees overseas to assume roles now being played by the military in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots. Echoing a theme stressed by his boss, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Mullen told an audience at Princeton University last Thursday: "You've heard us, some of us and certainly me, talk about our foreign policy being too militarized. I believe that. And it's got to change."
Comment: It is a long time since I worked in the government and I am out of date. A decade ago, this was somewhat true. There were a lot of people in our government outside of the military working in international fields, but not enough given the globalization that had occurred. Perhaps more of a problem, there was little coordination or even sharing of information among Departments working internationally.

As far as I can figure out, the Bush administration cut back on the international activities of the "domestic" mission agencies, and has greatly expanded the role of the military not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but even in Africa.

Yes, health problems are global. Resource problems are global. Agriculture is global. Commerce is global. Our line agencies really should be taking part in global issue programs, and the National Security Council should incorporate the expertise of their personnel.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

On the book "When Asia Was The World"

I have been reading When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors, and Monks Who Created the "Riches of the "East" by Stewart Gordon. I recommend it highly. It is a short book, easy to read, and divided into chapters each of which can stand alone (although they add together to make the authors point).

Most of the chapters recount the stories of historical travelers, and can be read as travel naratives. Others deal with the path of conquest (as told by Babur, the founder of the Mogul empire in India) or shipping routes (based on the archaeological record of an ancient shipwreck found in Asia). The last chapter puts the earlier ones in an overall historical perspective.

What I found most interesting is that Gordon puts the entire book in the perspective of network theory. He discusses the network of Buddhist monasteries that facilitated the travel (and learning) of Buddhist monks, forming a network over what are now India, Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and South East Asia. He discusses the network of Islamic courts that allowed Muslim scholars to travel from Morocco to China, and the Shiite schools and inns that provided accommodations during their travel. He describes the trade networks, more elaborate than I had realized. He describes some of the familial networks that existed and the more general network of ethnic communities in trading networks. He also describes the "salt" system in Mongol society that allowed people from different ethnic groups, speaking different languages to serve in the army of a Mongol prince.

These networks served to transmit not only people, money and goods, but also information and customs. Gordon quickly gives a picture of the ways in which the complex web of networks worked in Asia for more than 1000 years. it explains why courtly etiquette was similar in courts of kingdoms that were ethnically very different one from another. It also shows how travelers willing to learn that etiquette could move successfully from court to court, while the Portuguese travelers who first visited Asia and were scornful of local customs did so poorly.