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I can see the merit of your position with respect to conventional brute-force charity: feeding, clothing, housing, and healing people who can't do this for themselves. What your position seems to neglect is the value of competition and diversity in doing what is new. Scientific research is an obvious example (and far from the brute-force end of the spectrum) but "social entrepreneurs" have also found innovative ways to help the disadvantaged.

I would be much happier with your approach if it included broad reforms in research funding agencies -- reforms that would pour a modest fraction of their funds into channels with different performance criteria. Today, most agencies act under incentives that punish surprising failures, with no effective way to offset these by surprising successes. The result is extreme risk aversion precisely where risk can best be tolerated -- by agencies kept afloat by a sea of tax money, and managing a vast, diversified portfolio of research investments.

What I'd like to see is the use of metrics that try to measure the difference between research that produces one unit of benefit and research that produces a million units. I'd then want policies that judge agencies not by their (ideally, many) failures but by the sum of these and their (potentially enormous) successes.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Sat Nov 25th, 2006 at 04:32:54 AM EST
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