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Research’s Market Failure: The End of the Beginning

Take a look at these eye-popping stats, from journalist and technologist Frederic Filloux’s recent essay, “COVID-19’s General Blindness is Also a Journalistic Failure”:

  • A search query for the phrases “global pandemic” or “global pandemic preparedness” from 2009-2019 turned up 1,400 results in JAMA, 30 papers in ArXiv and 17,000 results in Google Scholar.
  • There were 98 TED talks on these topics during the same period.

That, my friends, is market failure for an idea.

Filloux blames the market, and his assessment is pitiless: “The signals were everywhere and we ignored them. Collectively. Governing bodies, politicians, and journalists…We had no excuses.” He particularly excoriates the media for abrogating “its watchdog role” in the decade leading up to COVID-19:

Why didn’t we question preemptively the obvious unpreparedness of the public and private structures?…The causes are multiple: loss of expertise, a shift in priorities toward superficiality, and the failure of editorships unable to overcome rampant shortcomings.

His solution? Bring more domain expertise to the news staff:

Newsrooms harboring experts — in house, or more realistically, on retainers — would have been more likely to read low-noise signals or even connect the dots of apparently unrelated facts, to put together a true picture of what is unfolding. (Artificial Intelligence in newsrooms will eventually help — an emerging field called “story detection” — but it was not ready this time. …)

I’m ruefully amused by this conclusion, given the after-action COVID-19 and the US media review Peter Kafka of Recode published this morning which, in essence, blames the scientific establishment (WHO, CDC, Anthony Fauci, anyone, seemingly, the media called for comment) for leading the media astray on the potential gravity of the pandemic. (Kafka’s piece is, predictably, getting a lot of media praise on Twitter.) This strain of analysis is just another version of “the models all exaggerated the risk” argument now emerging on the American right. There were, in fact, plenty of experts during those months who were ringing the alarm bells about COVID-19. Most of the press just didn’t bother calling any of them. And it seems impossible, amidst the present accelerating legacy media collapse, that enough expertise across enough disciplines could be marshaled to augment the beleaguered news and magazine staff that will be left. And signs are it will only get worse. Media are taking by far the biggest hit in public confidence of all institutions since the onset of COVID-19, according to a new survey conducted by Kekst CNC and tweeted out by Kekst CNC senior advisor Robbie Gibb. See chart: public confidence drops in the media are the negative ones on the far right for UK (21%), USA (14%), Germany (8%) and Sweden (21%):

But as self-serving as I find Kafka’s analysis, it does take two sides to make a market failure. If 50 TED talks don’t break through to change global and national conversations and resource allocations, it’s unlikely the 98th one will do the trick. Another paper on the tottering heap of existing literature is almost certainly not going to trip the lead domino of concern that leads to public alarm and political action. To say that research did all it could to warn us of an epidemic, as Filloux implies, is to also say that “doing all it could” wasn’t nearly enough when the crucial dissemination vehicle for those warnings — the press — was looking elsewhere.

Was there enough persistence and creativity? Were there enough books? Enough dedicated research centers putting everything they had into ringing the alarm bells loudly enough? Was there also a failure in funding models for marketing the big ideas? To say that market demand failed to take up one of the most important ideas of the 21st century, we must first ask if supply to that market kept up with the directions demand moved. If journalism can’t point fingers at expertise, expertise can’t simply cross its collective arms and say: We’re doing all we can.

Your research-driven big idea is almost always going to experience market failure initially, on some level, with some audience. That’s pretty much a first principle of researcher thought leadership. If your breakthrough depends exclusively on wide-spread reportage, your research-driven ideas will almost die in market failure. If you have a long game dedicated to finding your audiences and creating your communities, your initial market failures will be just the end of the beginning.