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Should Your Organization Do Science?

From a recent episode of Tyler Cowen’s podcast “Conversations with Tyler,” with the economist Paul Romer:

COWEN: If you could reform the World Bank, what would you do?

ROMER: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I think the Bank is trying to serve two missions, and it can’t do both. One is a diplomatic function, which I think is very important. The World Bank is a place where somebody who represents the government of China and somebody who represents the government of the United States sit in a conference room and argue, “Should we do A or B?” Not just argue, but discuss, negotiate. On a regular basis, they make decisions.

And it isn’t just China and the US. It’s a bunch of countries. I think it’s very good for personal relationships, for the careers of people who will go on to have other positions in these governments, to have that kind of experience of, basically, diplomatic negotiation over a bunch of relatively small items because it’s a confidence-building measure that makes it possible for countries to make bigger diplomatic decisions when they have to.

That, I think, is the value of the World Bank right now. The problem is that that diplomatic function is inconsistent with the function of being a provider of scientific insight. The scientific endeavor has to be committed to truth, no matter whose feathers get ruffled. There’s certain convenient fictions that are required for diplomacy to work. You start accepting convenient fictions in science, and science is just dead.

So the Bank’s got to decide: is it engaged in diplomacy or science? I think the diplomacy is its unique comparative advantage. Therefore, I think it’s got to get out of the scientific business. It should just outsource its research. It shouldn’t try and be a research organization, and it should just be transparent about what it can be good at and is good at.

I don’t know if Romer’s right about the World Bank. I do know he’s right about two things:

  1. Organizations need to decide what their unique comparative advantages are and stick to them and be transparent about that.
  2. For science to be your organization’s unique comparative advantage, it can’t compete with other organizational functions that are culturally opposed to it.

There are no church/state walls within mission-driven organizations.

We might also take Romer’s “diplomacy” as a proxy for any of a range of core functions/value propositions that mission-driven organizations trade in, that are based in part on convenient fictions, and that are opposed to the business and unique value of science — which is to say, the business of investigating and ever more closely approximating the dynamics that govern the world, and providing insights and policy options driven by those ever-closer approximations.

Those functions — your mission-driven organization’s particular “diplomacy” — might have an equal or greater value to your organization or a particular community than the science you do.

If Romer is right, and your organization is good at “diplomacy,” whatever that means for your organization, then your organization should abandon science, or outsource it so that it bends to the needs of those functions. Otherwise, your “diplomacy” will always be at war with your science — at least, science in its non-negotiable incarnation of independent investigator. Just ask any NGO-based science communicator to show you their scars from numerous internal battles.

This is, of course, not to say that science has a special claim on the truth or is automatically the highest value. There are other values and other truths, and science always benefits from being aware of and informed by them. It is only to point out how hard it is for science to live and grow cheek-to-jowl with with other cultures within mission-driven organizations. And that, while the culture and norms of science are strong, but ultimately no match for those of its host organization.

Question I’m wrestling with: Does this dynamic also apply to individual scientists and their public-issue advocacy? Especially in the collision of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests?

Perhaps more in future installments.